Team Notes week 15 2021

By Bob Harris
Bob Harris<

NEWS, NOTES, RUMORS AND OTHER GOOD STUFF

Directly from the desk of FlashUpdate Editor Bob Harris. The good; the bad; and yes. ... Even the Bears. There is no better way to jump start your weekend than browsing these always educational -- often irreverent -- team-by-team, Fantasy-specific offerings. ...
Access specific teams by clicking on a team name in the schedule appearing directly to your left or by clicking on a helmet below; return to the helmets by hitting the link labeled "Menu" following each teams notes. ...

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Arizona Cardinals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The Arizona Cardinals do not play well at home, and it cost them Monday night.

As ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss reported, the Cardinals' home woes continued against the Los Angeles Rams in front of a national TV audience during a 30-23 loss, which dropped their record at State Farm Stadium to 3-3. More importantly, the loss caused them to fall out of first place in the NFC and into third behind the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Cardinals can still clinch a playoff berth next week with a win and have a shot at the No. 1 overall seed, but right now coach Kliff Kingsbury isn't interested in homefield advantage.

"As of now I probably want to lose every game and play on the road every week, so not that important, I don't think," said Kingsbury when asked how much homefield means. "I mean, we just want to improve as a team and make sure if we can make it in that we're playing our best football when we do get in."

With a playoff berth on the line, the Cardinals were plagued by their biggest issue at home: Turnovers. Arizona has committed 11 turnovers at home after Monday and just two on the road. On Monday, quarterback Kyler Murray threw two interceptions and the Cardinals' defense didn't take the ball away from the Rams.

The Cardinals couldn't find an offensive rhythm. Running back James Conner was held to 31 yards and Murray didn't throw a touchdown. He was under duress throughout, getting sacked four times, including three by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Murray threw for 383 yards by completing 32 of 49 passes as Arizona's offense was productive but looked out of sorts all night, but still have four games to regain the NFC's top seed.

Murray was the Cardinals' leading rusher with 61 yards on seven attempts -- 30 more yards than Conner.

The Cardinals say they aren't discouraged by the performance.

"I thought we just had a couple of negative plays offensively, other than that I think we moved the ball well," Murray said. "I think we executed at a pretty high rate. ... I'm not discouraged by what happened in the game."

He's not entirely wrong. The Cardinals did produce plenty of offense, gaining 447 total yards for the night. Murray made some terrific throws to offset his poor ones and directly a stellar six-play sprint in the final 35 seconds of the first half to get a tying field goal before the break. A.J. Green had seven catches for 102 yards.

Additionally, the Cardinals ability to get a field goal to pull within seven and then recover an onside kick to give them the chance to tie the game late in regulation showed their resolve until the end.

"I thought the effort was as good as we've had as far as start to finish," Kingsbury said. "Guys continued to battle and continued to stay in the game. But just not clean enough in any phase."

The Cardinals travel to Detroit next week to try and boost their sparkling road record against the worst team in the league. Had they beaten the Rams, it would've been a chance to clinch the division as well.

Now it's just a must-win, as the Cardinals -- if they are going to play multiple games at home in the postseason -- need to not only win but get some help too.

"We would like (home-field)," Conner told the team's official website. "We haven't played the best at home. We acknowledge that."

"Shame on us if we think like (we don't want home field). That's not the case. We're not thinking that at all. We still have to play better football. We have to play our best game, whether it's on the road or at home. ..."

Other notes of interest. .. The Cardinals are still waiting to get Chase Edmonds back from injury. So they continued to lean on Conner.

As noted above, Conner only had 31 yards on 13 carries but added two touchdowns to his season total. With 16 total touchdowns on the year, Conner is tied with Los Angeles Chargers' running back Austin Ekeler and trails only Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor for the most in the NFL.

Only two players in franchise history have more rushing touchdowns: David Johnson (16 TDs in 2016) and John David Crow (14 TDs in 1962). Conner has a rushing touchdown in the last seven games, tying Crow (7 in 1959-1960) for the franchise record for the most consecutive games with a TD.

What's equally as impressive is Conner's contribution to the passing offense, finishing with 94 yards on nine catches on Monday.

Conner appeared to have suffered an injury as the Cardinals tried to salvage the game with a touchdown drive. Kingsbury, however, did not sound concerned about his health following the game. Conner said he was OK.

"I don't think it's too bad," Kingsbury said. "But we'll have to check on that. ..."

Arizona converted 2 of 4 fourth downs, but their two failures were at the hands of DeAndre Hopkins, who dropped a pass, and Conner, who was stuffed. As Weinfuss suggested, with an MVP candidate at quarterback, Murray should have had the ball in those situations.

Another issue, according to Weinfuss, was not giving Hopkins, who left the game with an injury in the waning minutes, more makeable plays early on to get him in a rhythm. Hopkins caught five passes for 54 yards on 12 targets, but he wasn't targeted on Arizona's first drive. He had three quick targets on Arizona's second possession but went from 8:23 left in the first quarter to 4:12 left in the second quarter without a target.

According to Weinfuss, after games like this, in which Murray wasn't part of crucial plays, Kingsbury tends to overcorrect and get him involved more than usual. Expect that to happen in Detroit. ...

Back to the injuries. ... Hopkins and Conner were both undergoing further testing on Tuesday.

Kingsbury told reporters that Hopkins was having an MRI on his leg and Conner was having one on his ankle as part of the evaluation of their injuries. Kingsbury said on Monday night that he didn't think either player has a serious injury, but the test results will provide more insight on that front.

On Wednesday, Kingsbury announced that Hopkins, dealing with a knee injury today, won’t participate in Wednesday's walk-through and is seeking more opinions.

That's never a good sign and the news got worse as the day wore on.

The latest reporting, from ESPN's Adam Schefter and Jeremy Fowler, indicates Hopkins is expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a sprained knee, but the team is hopeful to get him back at some point in the postseason.

Conner is said to be day-to-day.

I'll have more on Conner and Hopkins as further details on their respective injuries come to light; I'll also be following up on Edmonds, who should be ready to return this week; watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for more.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Trace McSorley
RBs: James Conner, Darrel Williams, Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin
WRs: A.J. Green, Marquise Brown, Antoine Wesley, Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, DeAndre Hopkins
TEs: Zach Ertz, Darrell Daniels, Maxx Williams

Atlanta Falcons

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

First-year coach Arthur Smith has been adamant that the Atlanta Falcons can run the ball effectively no matter the opponent.

Turns out he was right.

As Associated Press sports writer George Henry notes, the Falcons have rushed for 398 yards the last three weeks against Carolina, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, each of which is ranked in the top half of the league in run defense. They are 2-1 over that span and are still in the NFC playoff hunt at 6-7.

"You're starting to see some of that hard work pay off," Smith said a day after Atlanta won 29-21 at Carolina. "You want to do things a certain way, but it's a long, hard journey. Certainly at times you want things sooner rather than later, but that's why we didn't panic and give up on the run game. We know how we want to play and the style, and it's a credit to those guys up front.

"They'll continue to work. I thought they played really physical. I thought they finished well yesterday. The key being can we go out to San Fran and do it again?"

Cordarrelle Patterson got the rushing attack going with a 5-yard touchdown that tied it at 7 in the first quarter. From there, the Falcons had enough push to finish with 128 yards, 58 from Patterson and 44 from Mike Davis, who also caught five passes for 42 yards.

"It's our offensive line," Davis said. "All credit goes to those guys. They are giving us great holes to run through, so all the credit goes to the offensive line. Yeah, I see us taking strides every day in practice. We just try to make sure we go out there and execute."

Smith, a former offensive coordinator at Tennessee, knew he wouldn't have an easy time implementing a powerful running game without a star back like Derrick Henry. But the Falcons stayed with Smith's plan to gut it out and focus on improving.

Smith acknowledges there were times he was frustrated. He's pleased now that the run game is trending in the right direction.

"We've just got to continue to do it," Smith said. "That's how you're going to win games late in the year, especially on the road. We've got to continue to evolve and adjust. It's not that you can just repeat the same game plan. That's the challenge in the NFL, especially when you're playing good teams."

So is the Falcons' run game legitimate?

ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein thinks so. And not just because of the totals.

According to Rothstein, the difference this week was the balance the Falcons showed in the run game. The past two weeks, Davis has looked more like the back the team signed him to be Sunday. Qadree Ollison, finally signed to the 53-man roster Saturday, also found a role with limited carries.

Combined, Rothstein believes the trio has become what Smith has been looking for throughout his first season - a multi-faceted rushing attack that can cause opponents stress.

Meanwhile, Smith has been saying for weeks the Falcons wanted to be playing meaningful football in December -- and in Charlotte, in the middle of the month, was exactly that. Win, and Atlanta would remain in the conversation for a postseason berth. Lose, and the realities of playing more for 2022 would make much more sense.

Well, Atlanta did what it's done best this season: Win on the road, and in doing so, ensured they'll at least get through December playing games which will give them a shot at the postseason.

It doesn't get easier from here, as the Falcons head to San Francisco next week.

But winning beating the Panthers created another meaningful game and another opportunity to move closer to a longshot playoff berth. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Falcons have almost no downfield passing threat, particularly with No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley out most of the season. The longest pass covered 36 yards to Russell Gage and the next longest was 23 to Kyle Pitts and 20 to Davis.

Smith said on Monday that he has no update on the status of Ridley, who was placed on the non-football illness/injury list on November 5.

Ridley played the first four games of the season, then took one game off for what were termed personal reasons, then returned for one game before walking away while issuing a statement saying he needed to focus on his mental health.

A first-round draft pick in 2018, Ridley had a breakout season in 2020, with 90 catches for 1,374 yards. He has 31 catches for 281 yards this season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Marcus Mariota, Josh Rosen, Feleipe Franks
RBs: Cordarrelle Patterson, Qadree Ollison, Damien Williams
WRs: Damiere Byrd, Olamide Zaccheaus, Bryan Edwards, Frank Darby, Auden Tate, Christian Blake, Chris Rowland, Calvin Ridley
TEs: Kyle Pitts, Anthony Firkser

Baltimore Ravens

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, Lamar Jackson suffered a right ankle sprain in Sunday's 24-22 loss to the Browns, which puts a major question mark over the final four games of the regular season for Baltimore.

The Ravens are expecting Jackson to be diagnosed with a low ankle sprain, a source told ESPN's Dianna Russini. Jackson walked out of the locker room in a protective boot.

"We'll look at it more [Monday] and we'll see where we're at," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

Asked if Jackson has to undergo more testing, Harbaugh said, "We'll see how he responds [Monday], we'll see how it responds."

With four weeks left, the Ravens (8-5) currently lead the AFC North by a game over the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6) and Browns (7-6). Baltimore has one of the toughest remaining schedules: home against the Green Bay Packers, at the Bengals and home against the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.

After backup quarterback Tyler Huntley nearly pulled off a remarkable comeback Sunday, the Ravens believe they are still a playoff team even if Jackson is sidelined.

As Hensley put it, Huntley isn't Jackson, but he doesn't flinch.

"Tyler showed a lot of grit, and I felt like the whole team did that," Harbaugh said. "That's who we are and that's why we have a chance to still win the championship in the AFC North and go on from there. That's what we'll be fighting to do in the next four weeks."

Jackson was hurt on the first play of the second quarter after throwing a short pass to tight end Mark Andrews. After spending four minutes in the medical tent, Jackson couldn't put any weight on his right leg before getting carted into the locker room.

Last week, Jackson rolled his right ankle when he stepped on the yard marker after a run out of bounds. He had the ankle taped during the week.

Jackson has never missed a game because of injury in his four-year NFL career. He has been sidelined twice by illness, and he sat out the 2019 season finale after Baltimore had already clinched the top seed that year.

After Sunday's game, Jackson told Huntley that he was proud of him for giving the Ravens a chance to win the game.

"He is going to be ready to work and come back whenever they do their tests to make sure he is OK," Huntley said. "He will be back."

When Jackson left the game, the Ravens were down 10-0, and Baltimore wide receiver Sammy Watkins told teammates in the huddle, "Let go play for Lamar."

The Ravens' deficit grew to 24-3 by late in the first half before Huntley rallied Baltimore with elusive scrambles and big throws downfield. After Baltimore scored 19 straight points, Huntley's two-yard pass on fourth-and-six with 56 seconds remaining sealed the Ravens' first back-to-back losses since December of last year.

"There's a lot of teams that would've given up in that situation. There's a lot of pause," Andrews said. "We fought, and we fought the whole game. There wasn't a second that we were out there that we didn't believe that we weren't going to come back -- and that's rare for a team when you're in situations like that."

The injury to Jackson comes at a time when he has taken contact at a historic rate. He is being hit an average of 16 times per game this year, the highest rate by any quarterback in the last 15 years, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Beyond that, with a revamped offensive line and backfield, Jackson has been mired in the worst slump of his career. The NFL MVP two years ago, Jackson had been picked off in each of his previous four games, totaling eight interceptions.

He was 4-of-4 for 17 yards Sunday before leaving Sunday's game.

Still, Jackson has accounted for 78 percent of the Ravens' offense entering Sunday. That was the seventh-highest rate in the league despite Jackson missing one game this season.

Now, there's a possibility that the Ravens could be without Jackson as they look to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Baltimore's hopes would rest with Huntley, who went undrafted in 2019 and totaled 315 yards on Sunday.

"We just have to go out there and give our highest level of effort," Huntley said. "That is what I plan on doing. I know the Ravens -- the whole organization -- we are going to give our best effort so we are looking forward to whatever."

Need a reason for optimism?

This was the first time since Nov. 7 that Baltimore scored over 20 points.

Of some concern. ... Injuries not to players named Jackson have depleted the Ravens, who have placed 23 players on injured reserve at some point this season.

On Sunday, Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell suffered a thigh injury before Jackson went down and Watkins (knee) is also working an issue.

FB Patrick Ricard (knee) missed Sunday's game in another blow to the Baltimore offense.

"He just didn't feel like he could go, the way it felt," Harbaugh said. "It's not a serious thing. We got the MRI, we got good news on it this morning. So we'll see how it progresses during the week. Kind of expecting to have him next week. We'll see how it goes."

In addition, penalties are a problem.

The secondary was responsible for 125 yards on 10 penalties. That secondary figures to be tested again Sunday when Baltimore hosts Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay.

The Packers scored a season-high 45 points in a win over Chicago on Sunday night.

On a more positive note, rookie Rashod Bateman rebounded from a quiet game against Pittsburgh, catching seven passes for 103 yards against the Browns.

"I'm just continuing to get more comfortable as we play," Bateman said. "I'm just doing my job, continuing to make plays for the team. Hopefully, I can keep it up."

Stay tuned. I'll have more on Jackson, who Harbaugh characterized as day-to-day in announcing he wouldn't practice Wednesday, and the other injured Ravens via Late-Breaking Update as the team's preparations to take on the Packers progress.

But it's probably worth noting the Ravens are making sure they have enough depth at the position. Jets head coach Robert Saleh told reporters at his Wednesday press conference that the Ravens are signing quarterback Josh Johnson off of the Jets’ practice squad.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley
RBs: Devonta Freeman, Mike Davis, Latavius Murray, Ty'Son Williams
WRs: Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace, James Proche, Miles Boykin
TEs: Mark Andrews, Josh Oliver, Eric Tomlinson, Nick Boyle

Buffalo Bills

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The mere sight of Josh Allen limping into the post-game interview room with his left foot in a protective boot cast an ominous cloud over the Bills' hopes of remaining in the playoff picture in the final four weeks of the season.

A day later on Monday, head coach Sean McDermott was unable to shed much light on Allen's status, announcing the quarterback has a sprained foot and leaving open he'll have "a chance" to play Sunday, when Buffalo hosts Carolina.

"I talked to the medical team and, you know, he has a chance, we'll just see where that goes," McDermott said, noting Allen was still feeling sore. "We're just going to take it one day at a time here,"

Though Allen shrugged off the injury sustained in a 33-27 overtime loss at Tampa Bay by saying, "I don't think it's going to be a big deal," the very chance of the quarterback's mobility being hampered -- let alone potentially missing a game -- is cause for concern.

According to Associated Press sports writer John Wawrow, the Bills might draw inspiration from how they rallied from a 24-3 halftime deficit to nearly beat old nemesis Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champions. The trouble is, Buffalo (7-6) still came away with its third loss in four outings while maintaining a slim hold on the AFC's seventh and final playoff berth.

Then there's Allen's uncertain status. If he can't play, the Bills would turn to Mitchell Trubisky, who signed with Buffalo this offseason after an up-and-down four-year stint with the Chicago Bears.

Though Trubisky might have the pedigree of being selected No. 2 in the 2017 draft, he would have big shoes to fill in replacing Allen in an offense which places an emphasis on the quarterback being a dual threat.

Allen was hurt while being pushed out of bounds following a 22-yard run in the final minute of the second quarter. Playing through the injury, Allen still accounted for 109 of the team's 173 yards rushing, plus a score, marking the third time this season he's generated more than 50 percent of the team's ground attack.

As a passer, Allen had career highs with both 36 completions and 54 attempts for 308 yards passing and two touchdowns. And he had the Bills in position to win in regulation before failing to connect with a well-covered -- and possibly interfered with -- Stefon Diggs in the end zone on third-and-2 from Tampa Bay's 7. Buffalo settled for an overtime-forcing field goal with 22 seconds remaining.

The Bills are still having trouble overcoming deficits. Buffalo is 1-6 when trailing at any juncture of a game this season as opposed to going 7-3 last year.

McDermott was encouraged despite the loss.

"I'll reiterate what I said after the game, I was impressed with the way that the guys rallied and played and really stepped up. They played with really one heartbeat, and that was fun to be a part of, fun to watch," he said. "We had a chance to win the game, at the end there, multiple chances, in fact, to win the game.

So at the end of the day we just came up a little bit short."

As a result, the Bills' margin for error has grown thin with five teams now at 7-6, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1). The rest of the schedule includes the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets -- all winnable games at home.

But Buffalo can't afford to look beyond the Panthers (5-8) with a rematch against AFC East-leading New England looming on Dec. 26. ...

For the record, Allen was limited in Wednesday's practice; I'll have more via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Other notes of interest. ... The Bills made a conscious decision to rely on their pass game from the outset of the game and stuck with it almost exclusively in the first half. That approach did not yield much in the way of points, as they managed just one drive that gained more than 25 yards in the first half, which produced a short field goal.

Buffalo called 20 pass plays, and it might have been more had Allen not taken off on three scrambles in the first half.

There was one designed run call for him, and it accounted for the only run play through the first two quarters.

With Zack Moss a healthy inactive, Devin Singletary contributed 89 total yards from scrimmage, good for second-most behind Allen.

"When he had options to run the ball he ran it well," said Allen of Singletary. "He made some good plays in the passing game too and we're going to need more of that moving forward."

The Bills elected to run the ball wide rather than up the middle, where they usually get stuffed. Singletary broke off a 29-yard run by following his blockers and beating the Bucs' defense up the right sideline in the third quarter.

By game's end it was still largely a passing effort, due in large part to the 21-point halftime deficit. Buffalo had 54 pass attempts to 19 total runs with many of Allen's carries coming on scrambles, but there was enough of a mix for coach McDermott.

"I think we found a rhythm offensively in the second half," said McDermott. "Real proud of what Coach (Brian) Daboll did and the offensive staff there. We were mixing it up awfully well, I thought, in that second half. ..."

Cole Beasley broke out of a slump with nine catches for 64 yards following a four-game stretch in which he combined for 12 catches for 95 yards. ...

Aside from Allen, McDermott said that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders suffered a knee injury against Tampa Bay and most likely won't play this week. Sanders will be week-to-week going forward.

That being the case, it's worth noting that Gabriel Davis ran a pass route on 80.6 percent of Allen's Week 14 drop backs against the Bucs.

As NBCSportsEdge.com notes, it's a season-high mark for Davis, and it came with Sanders sidelined with the same injury that will sideline the veteran this week.

Davis, who caught five of his eight targets for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs, has plenty of touchdown upside as one of Allen's go-to red zone targets.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Josh Allen, Case Keenum
RBs: Duke Johnson, Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Taiwan Jones
WRs: Stefon Diggs, Jamison Crowder, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Tavon Austin, Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
TEs: Dawson Knox, O.J. Howard, Tommy Sweeney

Carolina Panthers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The Panthers are still going to start Cam Newton at quarterback.

But head coach Matt Rhule said Monday that they still wanted to use P.J. Walker at times, as they head into the final month of the season.

Newton and Walker each threw an interception in Sunday's loss to the Falcons, and Newton lost a fumble.

Those three turnovers were determinative, but Rhule said the plan was to continue to use both of them.

"We planned on playing P.J. in the game," Rhule said. "We had a package for him, and also planned on him playing in the two-minute. Obviously at the end of the half he threw the interception, which is unacceptable. At the end of the game, he threw us down there, we weren't able to get it in. Came back and made some nice plays to score the touchdown.

"We'll continue to play both guys."

Newton hasn't won any of the last three games he's started, after coming in for cameo appearances in his first week when they beat the Cardinals.

For the season, Newton's 44-of-75 passing (58.7 percent), for 467 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating is 73.6.

Walker got credit for winning the start at Arizona, since he took the first snap and most of the work. For the year, he's 36-of-66 passing (54.5 percent) with a touchdown and three interceptions. His passer rating is 56.5.

And while you can't dismiss the turnovers -- the Falcons turned them into 13 points in a game they won by eight -- Rhule said he did see some signs of progress in the passing game.

With new play-caller Jeff Nixon at the helm, the Panthers moved the ball effectively at times (both of Newton's turnovers came after they had driven into Falcons territory). As a team, they were 21-of-35 passing for 253 yards, with a touchdown and the two picks (67.9 passer rating).

"I thought Jeff did a nice job yesterday," Rhule said. "I thought the tempo was there. I thought there were guys open. ... I thought it was one of the better passing days we've had in quite some time.

"We'll continue to refine what we're asking of each guy, and I think in another week, hopefully we can play with that same sort of tempo we had, and just protect the football better."

Rhule was asked if he'd consider going back to the early plan for Newton from the Arizona game, but he said Newton had shown progress in learning the offense.

"I think coming out of Arizona there was some conversation about that," he said. "We wanted to put Cam out there and really see the things he could do. And I think he's started the games off well. He's taking the ball down and scored on the first drive, and in Miami the second drive. ... The first drive of the second half, he went right down the field and scored. It's the in-between areas and lulls. We dropped a snap on the second drive of the game, was about to be a good play, led to a three and out. Dropped a snap on the fumble. I think it's those detail things we have to clean up.

"In terms of the strategy moving forward this week, obviously, I'm not going to say too much. It's Monday, and Buffalo has to prepare for both guys. But I'm sure Cam will continue to play better and better and better, and P.J. is someone we have confidence in. So we'll continue to work both guys. ..."

Worth noting. ... The Panthers have now turned over the ball 23 times, including 18 in their eight losses. Rhule has repeatedly stressed that his team needs to take care of the football better if they are to have a chance to win games.

"It's real simple, you look at the games when we win the turnover battle or tie it, we usually win," Rhule said. "When we don't win the turnover battle, we lose. That's where we are. That's where most teams are, to be quite honest, but that is definitely where we are."

The Panthers have a brutal closing schedule, beginning this week at Buffalo.

They also play the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice and New Orleans once. Three of those games are on the road. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Chuba Hubbard rushed 10 times for 33 yards and a touchdown and wasn't targeted in the passing games on Sunday.

Stepping back into a lead-back role for Christian McCaffrey, Hubbard ended up with the same number of carries as Newton and also saw game script turn against the ground attack in the second half. However, Hubbard was able to salvage his fantasy day with a 17-yard scoring scamper along the way. The rookie did prove capable of much better production during his earlier stint as the No. 1 back this season, in part because he's now ceding considerable playing time to Ameer Abdullah.

Abdullah rushed four times for 16 yards and caught two of four targets for 17 yards against the Falcons, but due to his superior pass-catching skills, the veteran actually played 13 more offensive snaps than Hubbard.

With a tough matchup in Buffalo, the game flow could again favor Abdullah. ...

Robby Anderson had seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, one of his best games of the season. Anderson played all but two snaps. It was the highest percentage of snaps that Anderson has had since joining Carolina in 2020.

Anderson has had an extremely disappointing year after signing a three-year contract extension, but he could be more involved in the offense with Jeff Nixon taking over play calling from Joe Brady, who was fired last week as offensive coordinator.

Terrace Marshall Jr. was active and played 30 snaps, but was not targeted. ...

Rhule praised the toughness of wideout D.J. Moore, but said his leading receiver would likely be considered "day-to-day" with a hamstring injury suffered in Sunday's loss to the Falcons.

Rhule reiterated on Wednesday he expects Moore to play.

Moore was evaluated on the sidelines during the game, but said he wanted to continue.

Moore leads the team with 72 catches for 938 yards and four touchdowns, and is on pace for career-best numbers.

I'll follow up on Moore' via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

The Panthers are getting a couple of players back on the practice field Wednesday, including their opening week starting quarterback.

Quarterback Sam Darnold and cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III were designated to return from injured reserve.

That allows them to practice, and starts the 21-day clock to return them to the active roster.

Darnold went on IR in Week 10 with a shoulder injury. Thomas-Oliver went to IR in Week 11 with a foot injury.

Rhule said earlier this week that getting Darnold back was a possibility later this season, as they assess their quarterback options. ...

By the way. ... McCaffrey is the latest in a string of well-known NFL players to come down with COVID-19.

McCaffrey has tested positive, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The team announced that he is now on COVID-19 reserve.

The Panthers have already ruled McCaffrey out for the season because of an ankle injury, so his positive test won't have a significant impact on the team, but will impact who he can be around while he rehabs. ...

And finally. ... Is Rhule officially on the hot seat?

As ESPN.com's David Newton pointed out, three straight losses (five straight at home) and two wins in the past 10 isn't good for job security, particularly with a tough remaining schedule. Rhule replaced offensive coordinator Joe Brady, trying to fix one problem, but the Panthers continued to struggle. While it seems Rhule is safe until 2022, if the Panthers lose out and finish 5-12 after a 3-0 start, he might be on a very short leash with owner David Tepper. This team needed to show improvement, and hasn't.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker
RBs: Chuba Hubbard, D'Onta Foreman, Christian McCaffrey
WRs: D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson, Shi Smith, Rashard Higgins, Brandon Zylstra, Alex Erickson, Terrace Marshall Jr.
TEs: Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble, Colin Thompson

Chicago Bears

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

According to Associated Press sports writer Andrew Seligman, Justin Fields continued to show signs he is progressing toward becoming the quarterback the Bears envision.

In a season where the losses continue to pile up, that matters more than anything else.

Fields mixed promising flashes and missteps in a 45-30 loss at Green Bay on Sunday night, throwing for 224 yards and running for 74 more after missing back-to-back games with broken ribs.

"He can make some special throws," head coach Matt Nagy said Monday. "He does that. He's proven it. But now when you throw that element of using his legs on extended plays, that's hard. That's hard. That's going to be a big weapon for him."

The Bears (4-9) are reeling with seven loss in eight games. And the result against Green Bay was an all-too-familiar one.

Aaron Rodgers showed again that he still owns the Bears, throwing for 341 yards and four touchdowns despite a broken toe that's limited him in practice. Green Bay beat Chicago for the 21st time in 24 games and completed the season sweep.

As for Fields?

Coming off a string of promising performances prior to his injury, he had his moments in this one.

He shook off a 55-yard interception return in the second quarter by Rasul Douglas, who sprinted in front of Darnell Mooney near the sideline to pick off a soft and late pass and then went untouched to the end zone.

A few plays later, Fields hit Damiere Byrd with a quick pass in the middle. That turned into a 54-yard score.

But the Bears were outscored 24-3 after halftime and didn't get a first down until less than five minutes remained.

Still, it was progress.

The question now is whether Fields and the offense keep can keep their momentum going after scoring a season-high 30 points.

The Bears will try to contain Dalvin Cook when they host the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, but they could benefit from facing the league's second-worst scoring defense. ...

Other notes of interest. ... David Montgomery rushed 10 times for 42 yards and hauled in six receptions (seven targets) for 39 yards in Green Bay.

Montgomery left his dominant performance in Week 13 (141 total yards and a touchdown) with some nicks and bruises -- he played through glute, shoulder and groin injuries, but he still produced well despite an unfavorable game script in the second half.

As CBSSport.com notes, when healthy, the 24-year-old is the Bears' most-consistent offensive weapon, but Chicago's inability to produce leads puts a cap on what the running back can do in certain matchups. Montgomery has a favorable matchup against the Vikings Monday (19.1 fantasy points allowed to opposing RBs this season) if the Bears can keep the score close.

After missing the past three games because of a hamstring injury, Allen Robinson had just two catches for 14 yards. The veteran receiver, playing on the franchise tag, has not developed a connection with Fields. His production has dropped in a huge way with 32 receptions for 353 yards coming off one of his best seasons. ...

The Bears special teams were impressive.

Jakeem Grant was simply spectacular, returning three punts for a career-high 131 yards. That included a dazzling 97-yard touchdown -- the longest punt return for a score by any Bears player since at least 1960, which is as far back as the team's data on that statistic goes. It was also the first punt return for a TD this season in the NFL.

Grant, who was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week, has now returned six kicks for touchdowns in his career, four on punts and two on kickoffs.

Rookie Khalil Herbert had a big game, too. The sixth-round draft pick returned five kickoffs for 128 yards and recovered an onside kick late in the game.

Acquired in a trade with Miami in October, Grant didn't just shine on special teams. He had a big play when he caught a flip pass in the backfield and turned it into a 46-yard TD. That gave the sixth-year pro touchdown catches in back-to-back games, including an 8-yarder late in the loss to Arizona last week. ...

On the injury front. ... Fields hurt his left (non-throwing) hand and had x-rays on it because of swelling, but indicated it was not a major issue.

"My hand is just swollen a little bit," he said.

Fields also said he was in pain because of the rib injury throughout the game -- he described it as "bearable" -- and did feel limitations from it on certain throws.

"In the back of my head, just trying to stay protected and not take any hits, of course," Fields said. "I think there was one sack where I just kinda fell down because I wasn't trying to take a major hit."

Bears No. 2 quarterback Andy Dalton was out because of an injured non-throwing hand, leaving Nick Foles as Fields' backup.

Nagy said the Bears were still determining the severity of LT Jason Peters' ankle injury after he was hurt in the first quarter. Nagy didn't rule out the possibility of moving Larry Borom from right tackle to left tackle and going with Teven Jenkins at right tackle if it's clear Peters won't be available to play against Minnesota on Monday night.

I'll follow up on Fields as needed via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

And finally. ... The Bears placed nose tackle Eddie Goldman, defensive back Artie Burns and practice squad linebacker Sam Kamara on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Fields, Trevor Siemian
RBs: David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Tarik Cohen, Darrynton Evans
WRs: Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, Tajae Sharpe
TEs: Cole Kmet, Ryan Griffin, Jimmy Graham, Jesper Horsted, Jesse James, J.P. Holtz

Cincinnati Bengals

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Two weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were coming off two blowout wins that put them right in the middle of a chaotic AFC playoff picture.

There was belief this was a team that could get to the postseason and make an impact.

Then the Bengals became the Bengals again. The inconsistent, slow-starting, mistake-prone Bengals.

As Associated Press sports writer Mitch Stacey notes, Sunday's 26-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers included a Cincinnati returner fumbling away two punts, a taunting penalty that extended a San Francisco scoring drive, and the Bengals coming back to tie the game in the fourth quarter only to let it slip away in overtime.

Rookie receiver Ja'Marr Chase dropped two passes and then made two spectacular catches for touchdowns late in the game.

The second straight home loss dropped the Bengals to 7-6 and bumped them out of the playoff picture -- for now -- as they try to manage more injuries to important players.

"It's just the roller coaster of the season," cornerback Mike Hilton said, suggesting that some players weren't prepared for the games. "There's going to be highs and lows. Especially this deep in the season. We're going to continue to fight for position."

The Bengals tried in vain for three quarters to establish the run Sunday. Quarterback Joe Burrow, who had dislocated the pinky finger on his throwing hand the previous week, led two brilliant drives to force overtime.

The Bengals won the toss in OT, but could only manage Evan McPherson's field goal. Then Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers went 75 yards in seven plays for the winning touchdown.

"(We need to) take all these lessons we've learned in these type games and find ways to finish these games off," coach Zac Taylor said Monday. "It's part of losing in the manner that we have, where we fight hard and we come back and make it a good game. But we've got to find a way to finish off these close games."

Still, Burrow and the Bengals offense showed they can be potent. After falling into a 24-0 hole at halftime against the Chargers Dec. 5, Cincinnati stormed back to make it 24-22 in the third quarter, only to lose 41-22. The comeback on Sunday erased the 49ers' fourth-quarter lead.

The Bengals still have an outside shot to make the playoffs.

A win Sunday coupled with the Baltimore loss to Cleveland would have put them in first place in the AFC North. Instead, they're going to have to start sooner and scrap even harder with four games remaining, two of them against the Ravens and Browns.

They play at Denver (7-6) Sunday. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Joe Mixon carried the ball 18 times for 58 yards and caught both his targets for 10 yards against the 49ers.

For the first time since Week 3, Mixon failed to get into the end zone as his nine-game TD streak got snapped. He also failed to hit 100 scrimmage yards for the second consecutive contest, after reaching that mark in three straight.

Mixon still reached 1,000 rushing yards for the season, the third time in his career he's accomplished that feat, and he'll look to get back to his scoring ways in Week 15 against the Broncos. ...

Tee Higgins had a second consecutive 100-yard game, making five catches for 114 yards. Higgins, now on pace for 1,000 yards (1,061), says he's only thinking about making the playoffs. Chase made up for two earlier drops with the fourth-quarter touchdowns. His 10 touchdown passes are the most for a Bengals rookie in 31 years. He also topped 1,000 receiving yards.

Finally. ... Taylor told reporters that Burrow wouldn't practice Wednesday to rest his finger, but there isn’t any concern about his performance in games.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Joe Burrow, Brandon Allen
RBs: Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Chris Evans
WRs: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Mike Thomas, Stanley Morgan Jr.
TEs: Hayden Hurst, Drew Sample

Cleveland Browns

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

With 12 players on their COVID-19 lists, the Browns already had a full-blown crisis.

Then the team announced on Wednesday morning that head coach Kevin Stefanski had tested positive for the virus.

Now Cleveland’s quarterback has, too.

According to multiple reports, Baker Mayfield has tested positive for COVID-19. Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reports Mayfield is a “longshot” to have two negative tests separated by 24 hours in time for Saturday’s game against the Raiders, which implies the quarterback is vaccinated.

Mayfield testing positive could mean the others in the quarterback room are at risk of doing so. Cleveland’s backup is Case Keenum, who started the Week Seven victory over the Broncos when Mayfield was out due to injury. The Browns also have Nick Mullens on their practice squad.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Mayfield feeds “completely normal.”

In recent days, Cleveland has placed receiver Jarvis Landry, tight end Austin Hooper, guard Wyatt Teller, and left tackle Jedrick Wills on their COVID-19 list. Tight end David Njoku was placed on the list last week and has a chance to return in time for Saturday’s game.

There could be more positive tests to come out of Cleveland on Wednesday.

I'll obviously be watching for more on all this with the Browns -- and league-wide in coming days, but it's worth remembering the Browns are no stranger to having to work under poor COVID-19 conditions. Last season, the team's top four receivers were placed on the COVID-19 list just before the Week 16 contest with the Jets -- a matchup the Browns ended up losing. Then head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive and had to miss the team's playoff victory over the Steelers in the Wild Card round.

Meanwhile, the Browns don't have to impress any committee to make the playoffs. All the Browns have to do is win, and Sunday they caught a huge break to survive a major scare.

"Right now, it's just about winning," said star defensive end Myles Garrett. "That's all that matters."

Despite being shut out in the second half and unable to stop Baltimore backup quarterback Tyler Huntley -- not the dynamic Lamar Jackson -- in the closing minutes, the Browns escaped with a 24-22 victory to keep their postseason pulse beating.

The win for the Browns (7-6) capped another whirlwind week that included COVID-19 sidelining three starters; rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II suffering a concussion on the last play of practice; a punter being signed off the street on Friday; defensive end Myles Garrett calling out his teammates for not being focused; and Mayfield> telling Hall of Famer Kurt Warner in an interview that he's been bothered by "a lot of internal things."

Other than that, things are going smoothly, though they've got a shortened week ahead before a Saturday matchup with the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Browns likely will be without two key players who suffered injuries Sunday when they get back on the field Saturday against the Raiders.

RB Kareem Hunt (ankle) and CB Troy Hill (knee) exited Sunday's win over the Ravens and have been deemed unlikely to play Saturday in another big AFC game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Stefanski said he considered both players week to week (and Hill is among those on reserve/COVID this week).

For Hunt, it's the second significant injury he'll face in the past two months. The Pro Bowl RB had just returned from a calf injury that sidelined him for five games.

"That is the nature of the beast," Stefanski said. "Obviously, you hate injuries, and the competitor that Kareem is, you hate that he is going through this, but he has to rehab and get back as soon as he can."

Hunt was involved early and often before he suffered the injury late in the first quarter. He caught two passes for 13 yards, added two carries for 5 yards and was poised to do much more, as the Browns utilized both Hunt and Nick Chubb on the field at the same time on their first few possessions.

D'Ernest Johnson filled the void and finished with four carries for 22 yards and one catch for 7 yards. Cleveland rushed for 100 yards on 29 attempts.

Beyond all that, as Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers suggested, Sunday's win wasn't pretty nor stylish. It wasn't a loss, either.

"The point is to win a football game," Mayfield said, trying to counter a predictable narrative from the city's arm-chaired quarterbacks. "If you have more points than the other team, then you have accomplished your goal."

The Browns have loftier goals, including a first division title in 33 years, and their ambitions rest on Mayfield's shoulders -- one of which isn't whole.

But one of the biggest positives to emerge from Sunday's game was Mayfield's overall performance and health. Although he missed some throws, had one interception and was lucky not to have a couple more, Mayfield did enough -- 22 of 32 for 190 yards and two TDs -- to keep the Ravens off-balance and perhaps quiet a few of his critics -- for the moment.

However, there seem to be cracks in Mayfield's marriage with the Browns.

Before Sunday's game, Mayfield raised eyebrows when he told Warner that "internal" criticism has been an obstacle this season.

"It hasn't just been the outside noise," he said.

Stefanski said Monday he wasn't sure what Mayfield was referencing.

"I think we have a good line of communication," Stefanski said. "We just all -- coaches and players -- as we move forward with all of these big games, an AFC opponent this week, our focus is always going to be on the same page and doing what we need to do to go get a victory."

With the Browns, those are never easy.

Next up, the team gets a chance to strengthen their playoff chances and knock out the Raiders, who wobble into Cleveland after being destroyed 48-9 at Kansas City.

Other notes of interest. ... Cleveland's strong running game is stalled. For the second game in a row, the Ravens shut down Chubb, who had to fight for every one of his 59 yards on 17 carries.

The Browns are still adjusting to the loss of 2020 All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, and it didn't help they were missing two tight ends to help open holes.

No one in the NFL loves using three tight ends more than the Browns, but they had to make some major adjustments Sunday with Njoku and Harrison Bryant (ankle) unavailable. Miller Forristall was signed to the active roster earlier in the week, giving Cleveland two tight ends available for Sunday's game.

As a result, Hooper did some heavy lifting. He played all 65 of the team's offensive snaps and delivered one of his best performances of the season, catching five passes for 30 yards and a touchdown.

"Hoop knew we were putting a lot on him this week and we were counting on him," Stefanski said. "We made him a captain this week just because he has been so accountable to his teammates, and he did a great job. I know (Njoku) was I am sure very excited for him, and I know (Njoku) is chomping at the bit to get back, as well. ..."

With Hooper now joining Njoku on reserve/COVID, the hope in Cleveland is obviously that Njoku gets his wish. ...

Donovan Peoples-Jones led all wide receivers with 60 snaps. Landry played 54 and Rashard Higgins played 24. ...

After a strong start, kicker Chase McLaughlin has missed five field goals in the past seven games. He hit the upright on a 41-yarder Sunday in the fourth quarter that would have put the Browns up 27-9.

Stefanski said he has no plans to make a change.

Again, Hunt, who was a nonparticpant in Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices, is not expected to play. The same goes for Bryant, but I'll continue to follow up on his status as well as that of Mayfield, Landry, Hooper and Njoku via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jacoby Brissett, Baker Mayfield, Kyle Lauletta, Deshaun Watson
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, John Kelly
WRs: Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Jakeem Grant, Anthony Schwartz
TEs: David Njoku, Harrison Bryant, Miller Forristall, Stephen Carlson

Dallas Cowboys

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra notes, while the Cowboys defense heats up behind top Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Micah Parsons, the offense has hit a skid, struggling to move the ball consistently in recent weeks.

Dak Prescott had his worst game of the season -- and arguably the worst of his career -- in Sunday's win over the Washington Football Team, missing throws, tossing picks, and simply not playing very well.

Prescott completed 56.4 percent of 39 attempts for 211 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions, as the Cowboys' offense found the end zone just once in a 27-20 victory.

Since coming back from a calf injury, something has been off with Prescott, but there is a divide on whether the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is in a slump.

"I don't want to say that, slump, but that's probably fair," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. "But it's such a multifaceted evaluation that I would say our offense is definitely away from where we were playing five and six games ago from the standpoint of production."

On Monday, coach Mike McCarthy was asked whether quarterbacks can get in slumps.

"I wouldn't say a quarterback is having a slump. It's different in football. A lot of things go into it," McCarthy said. "I don't think Dak is in a slump. I think everything has not gone the way we would like to go are things we can improve on. That's the focus this week. We got a chance to go through the videos as a staff, and the players went through this [Monday] morning ... We'll just keep working. It goes this way sometimes."

Prescott missed one game because of the above-mentioned right calf strain that he suffered on a game-winning touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb in overtime against the New England Patriots on Oct. 17.

In the six games since his return, Prescott has thrown eight touchdown passes and six interceptions while throwing for 1,568 yards on 151-of-239 passing. In his first six games before the injury, he had 16 touchdown passes with just four interceptions while throwing for 1,813 yards on 158-of-216 passing.

Jones and McCarthy, as well as offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, agree that Prescott is healthy.

"Yeah, he's healthy," McCarthy said Monday. "He's a little sore. He took a few hits in the game, but yeah, he's healthy."

As ESPN.com's Todd Archer reminded readers, Prescott missed the final 11 games last season with a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, but he was back on the practice field during the organized team activities and minicamp, even if not fully cleared. He was full go in training camp before suffering a strained right latissimus that kept him off the field for 10 practices and all of the preseason games.

Jones told The Fan he believes Prescott trusts his body.

"I think he's playing smart in a lot of cases, relative to how he extends plays, whether he runs the ball or not," Jones said.

The Cowboys had their bye week following the New England game and he did not practice for about two weeks before returning on Nov. 7 against the Denver Broncos. In the past six games, the Cowboys' offense has scored 13 touchdowns, compared to 22 touchdowns in Prescott's first six starts.

Moore put the offensive struggles on the entire group.

The running game has hit a major dip with the knee injury suffered by Ezekiel Elliott in October. Backup Tony Pollard did not play against Washington because of a foot injury. Left tackle Tyron Smith will not play this week against the New York Giants because of an ankle injury, which will be his fourth missed game of the season.

"Slump, I don't know if I like the description of slumps. I think sometimes you have better games than others," Moore said. "I think Dak is still doing a great job. We got to play better as a whole group on offense. I've got to call it better first and foremost. I feel like we got a great opportunity ahead of ourselves."

Luckily for Dallas, the defense has been there to cover up the offense's warts.

With the division title all but secured, the Cowboys can focus on still being in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the NFC when Arizona visits Jan. 2. The only way that's realistic is if Dallas beats the Giants this weekend and wins the quick rematch with Washington on Dec. 26.

The Cowboys will need help, too. They're the fourth seed right now.

But as Patra noted, heading into the final four weeks of the season and a likely postseason appearance, the Cowboys need both units to click, or Dallas will be swiftly ejected from the January tournament. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Elliott ran for 45 yards on 12 carries and caught one pass for 15 yards on six targets against Washington.

Elliott played with a knee brace in this game, which Archer suspected was a first for the running back this season despite the fact he's been managing discomfort for several weeks. While his willingness to play hurt is admirable, it increasingly appears that his lingering knee issue has meaningfully hindered Elliott's effectiveness.

The Cowboys limited the hits on Elliott by giving Corey Clement 13 carries Sunday, which hopefully will give the former the chance to progress in his recovery and capitalize on an otherwise favorable
matchup against the Giants.

Pollard has by and large been the Cowboys' most explosive running back for the better part of two seasons now. He's also thrived in an expanded role this year.

Pollard's 5.6 yards per attempt tie him with Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts for third amongst all running backs. I'll be watching closely to see if he can make it back into the mix in coming days, but Dallas Morning News staffer Michael Gehlken reported Tuesday that McCarthy was "feeling a lot better" about Pollard's ability to play Sunday at Giants than he did leading up to Washington game.

In fact, Pollard was slated to practice Wednesday for first time since he was hurt against the Saints as the Cowboys will hold a reduced-workload session to keep team fresh. "More of a walkthrough-type practice," McCarthy said.

In addition, Cedrick Wilson is the latest player added to the Reserved/Covid-19 list.

Wilson returned from an ankle injury last week and played his first game since Thanksgiving.

But now there's a chance he can miss this Sunday's game in New York, depending on his symptoms and/or test results this week.

Noah Brown (groin) will miss another game as well so the offense could be down two backup receivers behind starters Amari Cooper, Lamb and Michael Gallup.

I'll have more on Pollard and Wilson via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

One last note here. ... With Cooper, Lamb and Gallup all hitting stride, tight end Dalton Schultz matched his season low with one catch, for a season-low 4 yards. As Associated Press sports writer Schuyler Dixon notes, the offense is generally more efficient when Schultz is involved, particularly on third down.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Corey Clement, Ito Smith
WRs: CeeDee Lamb, James Washington, Simi Fehoko, Noah Brown, Michael Gallup
TEs: Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon

Denver Broncos

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold noted, the Broncos aren't saying they shouldn't throw the ball. They aren't saying they want to turn the clock back.

What they are saying is when they possess the ball enough to give both of their running backs -- Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon -- a busy day at the football office, good things happen.

As in a lot of good things. ...

"Our two backs are really, really good," said head coach Vic Fangio. "I love them both, I'm glad we have them both."

The Broncos offense showed their rushing toughness during a 38-10 win over the Detroit Lions Sunday, pushing Denver to 7-6 and on edge of the AFC's playoff race. Williams and Gordon combined for 184 yards rushing yards on 39 carries -- 111 yards on 24 carries for Gordon and 73 on 15 for Williams.

They each scored two touchdowns -- two on the ground for Gordon; one on the ground and one in the air for Williams -- the first time since 1962 the Broncos had two running backs score twice from scrimmage in the same game.

And now the Broncos are 6-1 this season in games when they have at least 28 rushing attempts. They are 1-5 when they do not reach that mark.

"We had a good commitment to the run game," Fangio said. "And we need to have that, especially this time of year. If you can run it, you can build a lot of things off of it."

"We knew what the plan was and we wanted to do whatever we had to do to come away with the victory," said Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

After Sunday's win, Williams has 155 carries for the season, 743 yards rushing and a 4.8 yards per carry average, while Gordon has 159 carries for 716 yards rushing and a 4.5 yards per carry average. The two have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns -- Gordon has seven of them.

"Every game from here on out is going to be playoff games, we need both of us to stay healthy," Williams said.

Legwold went on to point out the two also keep Bridgewater out of harm's way a little more. Bridgewater has thrown interceptions in just two of the Broncos' seven wins overall. When the Broncos have muscled up more with the running game, they also have put the ball down the field far more effectively in the passing game.

Twenty-two of the Broncos' 33 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season have come during wins, which also happen to be the games they've been able to keep the running backs working.

"We're just both explosive," said Gordon, who played through a left thumb injury Sunday he suffered on the Broncos first series of the game. "When our number is called, it's a premium to make plays, especially at a time like this. We're not thinking twice about what we need to do."

Williams and Gordon get asked a lot of about the shared workload and if one will get more carries than the other each week. But the two seem to enjoy the near 50-50 division of labor. Gordon was the first to run to Williams to celebrate the rookie's first touchdown Sunday and they could been seen sharing a moment on the bench as the clock wound down to end the game.

"We look out for each other," Gordon said.

"[It was] really like a relief, knowing how hard we practice during the week," Williams said. "... Just to celebrate with him, both of us were having a good game."

As the Broncos try to keep themselves in the AFC playoff hunt, Fangio said the two running backs will be important pieces of what is essentially a win-or-you're-out scenario the rest of the way.

"We're going to approach every game like it's a must win," Fangio said. "And go at it like that and see how many we can get."

For the record, Gordon was listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Lions because of a hip injury and he's going to be on the injury report again this week.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Gordon sprained his thumb while picking up 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Those numbers indicate the injury wasn't a big problem against the Lions and Rapoport adds that while the veteran wasn't slated to practice Wednesday, the injury is not expected to cost Gordon any playing time in the coming weeks.

Should that outlook change, Williams would be in line for more work.

I'll have more on that via Late-Breaking Update as developments warrant in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals (7-6), who were installed as an early 1-point underdog, according to FanDuel SportsBook, are up next for the Broncos. After handling the Bengals, Denver hits the road for a pair of division games at Las Vegas and Los Angeles. ...

Other notes of interest. ... As Associated Press sports writer Arnie Stapleton notes, receiver Jerry Jeudy had a terrific training camp and was expected to make a huge leap from the three touchdowns he scored as a rookie. He got off to a spectacular start in the opener before a high ankle sprain sidelined him for two months.

Upon his return, the Broncos' inability to protect Bridgewater in the shotgun has hampered the deep pass.

Jeudy gets open on crossers, but is averaging just 11.4 yards per catch after averaging 16.5 yards as a rookie. He has 377 yards on 33 receptions and hasn't reached the end zone yet. ...

Kicker Brandon McManus was perfect on Sunday in his squad's 38-10 thumping of the Detroit Lions. McManus connected on all five of his extra points and booted home a 52-yard field goal. ...

And finally. ... After Friday's practice, Fangio said the team would be "ready to pay tribute" to former wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who was found dead in his Georgia home this week.

Ten players on the Broncos' roster and more than 40 in the organization were with the team during Thomas' career.

After a moment of silence in the stadium as well as a video tribute played on all of the screens just before kickoff, the Broncos lined up for the game's first play from scrimmage with 10 players in the formation. On a first-and-10 from the Denver 25-yard line to open the game, the 10 players stood motionless and waited for the play clock to wind all the way down.

The Broncos, who wore helmet decals of Thomas' No. 88, were assessed a delay of game penalty that the Lions quickly declined.

The crowd cheered loudly throughout, most chanting "D-T" before the play clock ran out.

Denver capped the game with an 88-yard drive -- a perfect length on this afternoon.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Russell Wilson, Josh Johnson
RBs: Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Mike Boone
WRs: Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Diontae Spencer, K.J. Hamler
TEs: Albert Okwuegbunam, Eric Saubert, Andrew Beck

Detroit Lions

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As Dan Campbell stood in front of media members, the first-year coach refused to make excuses for a 38-10 loss on Sunday to the Denver Broncos.

Even without Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson (hand) and star running back D'Andre Swift (shoulder), in addition to placing six players on the reserve/COVID-19 list this past week and having 12 others and six coaches battling influenza, he made it clear that they "weren't good enough."

"I just told the team the same thing, it's gonna be hard for me to say that's the issue," Campbell said. "What we had to do was not ideal but we were prepared to come in this game with the guys that we had and we had a game plan ready to go and we know what we needed to do and we didn't do it."

Safety Tracy Walker and running back Jamaal Williams were among the six placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, players were also battling influenza, including quarterback Jared Goff, who was among nine that missed Wednesday's practice -- which the Lions had to change to a walkthrough without pads for safety precautions.

On Thursday, 21 players were held out of practice with the team being limited to 7-on-7 action with no offensive or defensive lineman in attendance.

"It doesn't matter. No one feels bad for us. No one feels sorry for us, including ourselves," said Goff, who completed 24-of-39 attempts for 215 passing yards. "We went out here intending to win and came up short, don't care who was on the field."

Ahead of the Denver game, the Lions elevated six players from the practice squad as COVID-19 replacements, including running back Craig Reynolds, who led the team in rushing in Denver.

Detroit (1-11-1) is now officially eliminated from playoff contention with the best chance to land the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Despite having so many guys being hit with illness, Campbell still feels the team is following the proper protocols to keep guys safe as they try to finish the season on a high note during these tough times.

"We split the building. Some of them came into lift on Tuesday and we didn't even have the whole team there," Campbell said of the practice schedule this week. "I felt like we had already gone above and beyond and that was for the flu, much less COVID. So, yeah, I feel like we're doing all we can do with what it is.

"What else is it to do? Certainly the good thing is that we all tested negative on the flight, the same group that played today we were all negative and hopefully it stays that way and we'll be safe," he added. "Tomorrow we will bring in the guys that are injured that need to be in there and everybody else I would imagine we'll probably keep them home. Certainly, we'll hear from the league, see what they say and they might not let anybody in the building, which I get it."

As noted above, with Swift and Williams sidelined, Reynolds, also known as "Netflix" stepped off the practice squad and gained 83 yards on 11 carries. The undrafted free agent is in his third season, but only had one carry as he moved from Washington to Atlanta to Jacksonville before arriving in Detroit this season.

Reynolds' performance surprised most people, but not Campbell.

"Just as a play caller, I didn't have one problem handing the ball to him," Campbell said. "I trust him. What he did (Sunday) didn't surprise any of us. ..."

It is hard to know who will be over their illnesses in time to play the Cardinals, but Williams should be close.

But ESPN.com's Eric Woodyard thinks it's fair to wonder if the Lions should consider shutting down Swift for the remainder of the season.

Although Campbell says they "still have hope in Swift" and haven't considered shutting him down for the rest of the season, it might be smart to let their best offensive weapon heal.

The Athletic's Chris Burk reports that Swift and Hockenson were slated to sit out Wednesday's practice and that is doesn’t sound overly optimistic for either on Sunday.

I'll have more on Swift, Williams and Hockenson via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, as Associated Press sports writer Dave Hogg notes, when the Lions get behind, Goff's inability to make plays downfield damages any chance they have at a quick rally. On Sunday, he was 23 for 39 for 215 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

In a season when Detroit has been behind on a very regular basis, Goff is averaging fewer than 200 net passing yards a game and has 16 turnovers against 14 touchdowns.

Rookie wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown became the first Lions rookie to record seven receptions in back-to-back games in franchise history after notching eight catches (on 11 targets) for 73 yards in the loss in Denver. Goff leaned on St. Brown with Hockenson and Swift, the team's two leading pass catchers, sidelined.

As Tim Twentyman of the team's official website pointed out, St. Brown doesn't make a lot of big plays, but he's proving to be a reliable target for Goff, and he's looking like the future at the slot position.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jared Goff, Tim Boyle, David Blough
RBs: D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Craig Reynolds, Jermar Jefferson, Godwin Igwebuike
WRs: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, KhaDarel Hodge, Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy, Quintez Cephus, D.J. Chark
TEs: Brock Wright, Garrett Griffin, Jared Pinkney, T.J. Hockenson

Green Bay Packers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky reported, it appears that Aaron Rodgers still owns the Chicago Bears but unfortunately for the Packers' quarterback, he also still has a problem with his fractured pinky toe.

Rodgers and the Packers beat the Bears for the sixth straight time and Rodgers ran his record as a starter against them to 23-5 -- settling milestones and records in the series along the way. But he indicated that whatever healing took place with his toe during the Packers' bye was wiped out, and then some.

"It feels worse," Rodgers said after Sunday's 45-30 win at Lambeau Field. "I don't know what kind of setback that I had tonight but we'll look at it tomorrow. Definitely took a step back tonight."

Rodgers' suffered the injury last month during his COVID-19 quarantine and has barely practiced despite not missing any significant game action since he hurt it. It had improved enough last week to the point where he actually practiced for the first time in three weeks.

During the bye, Rodgers said surgery was an option and even though he was told it could be done without him missing a game, he elected not to have it. He said Sunday that he was still hoping to avoid the procedure, which would immobilize his toe, but that a decision would be made after he undergoes tests on Monday.

"That would be last resort, for sure," Rodgers said. "But I've got to see what kind of setback it was tonight."

Rodgers expanded on that during his Tuesday appearance on the Pat McAfee Show.

"Toe was definitely hurting after the game, but it is what it is," Rodgers said. "It's not going to be a problem I don't think. It's not going to stop me from playing. It's just pain management but I'm going to keep playing and probably not practice a whole lot."

Head coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday that the team will provide Rodgers with whatever he needs to be at his best. Last week, Rodgers didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday but was limited on Friday. He then went out and passed for 341 yards and four touchdowns while completing 78 percent of his passes in the 45-30 victory.

While there might have been a setback with the toe, there was none when it came to the Packers' dominance over the Bears with Rodgers at quarterback. Two months after Rodgers celebrated a touchdown at Soldier Field by screaming "I still own you" to fans in the stands, Rodgers threw for 341 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.

This was Rodgers' seventh four-touchdown, no interception game against the Bears, the most in NFL history against a single opponent. Rodgers is the only quarterback who also has six -- against the Vikings. Next closest is Tom Brady with five such games against the Bills.

Rodgers' final touchdown of the game -- his second of the night to Davante Adams (10 catches for 131 yards) -- gave him 61 career touchdowns against the Bears, passing Brett Favre's 60 for the most all time against Chicago. All of that prompted Packers receiver Allen Lazard to wear a shirt that read "I still own you" -- Rodgers' exact words on Oct. 17 -- to his postgame news conference.

At first, only the words, "I still" were visible on Lazard's shirt but when asked if it said what everyone thought it said, Lazard stood up to reveal the "own you," portion and said: "It most definitely does."

Running back A.J. Dillon had them made shortly after the first game this season against the Bears and while Rodgers said he has one, he did not feel compelled to wear his on Sunday.

"I've already said what I've said," Rodgers said. "I don't need to double and triple down. I'll let those words stand for themselves."

Meanwhile, as they close in on a third straight outright division title and chase the top seed in the NFC playoffs, the Packers still have causes for concern.

As Associated Press sports writer Steve Megargee noted, beyond Rodgers' tender toe, there's the depth of an offensive line that took one more hit as right tackle Billy Turner suffered a knee injury Sunday.

The Packers may need to shuffle their offensive line again as they prepare to visit the Ravens on Sunday.

And then there's the special teams, the Packers' glaring weakness.

The Packers beat the Bears despite allowing Jakeem Grant to score on a 97-yard punt return and deliver a 34-yard return that set up a field goal. That 97-yarder was the longest punt return by any Bears player since at least 1960.

"When you're playing an explosive returner like that, you need everybody to be perfect," LaFleur said Monday. "Unfortunately, we weren't perfect. We were far from perfect."

That also applied to other aspects of Green Bay's special teams.

A muffed punt return by Amari Rodgers would have given Chicago the ball at Green Bay's 20-yard line if a Bears penalty hadn't nullified the turnover. The Packers had to start a first-quarter possession at their 5-yard line when Malik Taylor mishandled a kickoff that appeared to be heading out of bounds. The Packers also allowed Chicago to recover an onside kick.

"Certainly, it's not up to our standard," LaFleur said after the game.

The situation has become dire enough that the first question LaFleur faced after a two-touchdown victory that gave the Packers a four-game lead in the NFC North was whether he planned to change special team coordinators again this week.

"Absolutely not," LaFleur replied.

Then he went into more detail.

"We've got to continue to work, we've got to look at the tape, we've got to get things corrected," LaFleur said. "I'll be the first to tell you that, yeah, is there some things that we have to clean up as coaches? No doubt about it. But we've got to execute better as well. ..."

Also of interest. ... After gaining just 2.9 yards per carry in a victory over the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago, the Packers had 5 yards per rush Sunday.

Aaron Jones rushed five times for 35 yards and a touchdown, adding three receptions for 30 yards and another score.

As CBSSports.com notes, Jones looked like his usual dominant self fresh off of the bye after struggling in his first game back from injury in Week 12. Dillon (15 carries for 71 yards) received the lion's share of rushing attempts, out-touching his fellow back 15 to eight.

Jones' nose for the end zone netted his managers the better fantasy line, but LaFleur seems committed to a true timeshare between the two talented backs, which puts a slight damper on Jones' previously-elite fantasy value.

When healthy, the 27-year-old is such a weapon that he can still be a must-start asset in his new limited role while Dillon remains a solid play as well.

One last note here. ... Jordan Love was back on the practice field at practice after his bout with COVID.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Aaron Rodgers, Kurt Benkert, Jordan Love
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
WRs: Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor, Randall Cobb
TEs: Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara, Robert Tonyan

Houston Texans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As the Houston Texans creep toward the end of the season, head coach David Culley said the team's struggling running game is still a work in progress.

"Obviously, it's not been very good," Culley said. "The thing that we've got to continue to do is just figure out what is best for our people, what they do best, and do those things instead of doing runs that we feel like are good runs, but our personnel may not fit those runs."

As ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop notes, in Sunday's 33-13 loss to the Seahawks, the Texans were without running back David Johnson, who was put on the COVID-19 list that morning, and lost running back Rex Burkhead to a hip injury during the game.

Because the Texans traded Mark Ingram II in October, put Scottie Phillips on injured reserve on Nov. 9 and waived Phillip Lindsay two weeks later, Houston was down to running back Royce Freeman after Burkhead's injury.

Freeman ran for 15 yards on 15 carries, and the team combined to average 2.5 yards per rush in the game.

Center Justin Britt said he thought the Texans did have that balance in the first half, but once they got down, they "had to get away from the run game pretty quick."

The Texans will get Johnson back after activating him from the COVID-19 list Monday, but Culley said Burkhead is "day-to-day" with his hip injury. Phillips, who has a leg injury, is "much, much better," Culley said, "but he's not there yet."

"With our running back situation right now, we may have to limit that even more as far as what we do in the running game," Culley said. "We've just got to continue to see what we do best, which has not been a lot right now, and just continue to get better at doing what we feel like we do best."

Houston, who ranks last in Football Outsiders' rush DVOA, is averaging a league-worst 77.5 rushing yards per game. Despite playing in only seven games for Houston, Ingram's 294 rushing yards on 92 carries may lead the team at the end of the season.

The struggling run game has put "a lot of pressure" on rookie quarterback Davis Mills, Culley said.

"That's why we've got to figure out a way to get it right for him," Culley said. "I thought he did a good job of handling what he had to handle.

"We don't want to come out of ballgames having thrown a ball 49 times. Obviously, we threw the ball that much simply because it got out of hand there in the fourth quarter. But that's not where we want to end up, and what we want to do."

Wide receiver Chris Conley pointed to two of the longer passes Mills was able to complete Sunday as examples of when Houston was able to get some of Seattle's linebackers to step up, which "really opens up things behind you."

"Each of those were instances where we got the backers to move, or at least pause their feet for a second, to get those guys open," Conley said. "So, that definitely helps. We have to do a better job of continuing to get that movement and or control regardless of who is in the game at running back."

There was a positive Monday, when the Texans activated Johnson from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

And that's good. Because Culley told reporters on Wednesday that Burkhead will not be ready to play against the Jaguars, so Johnson and Freeman will be Houston's running backs in Jacksonville.

They'll need to generate some offense through the running game to help take pressure off Mills as he tries to get his first NFL win.

"We've got to figure out a way to get it right for him," Culley said.

That said, Mills may be an improvement over Tyrod Taylor. The rookie completed his first 14 pass attempts against the Seahawks, the most consecutive passes completed to start a game by a rookie since at least 1991 and the most by any player in Texans history.

But after his strong start, Mills completed 19 of his next 35 passes and the Texans did not score in the second half.

"I've got to continue to learn and kind of just build experience from all the looks that I see out there from the defenses, and just keep moving forward," Mills said.

Still, Brandin Cooks, the Texan that fantasy managers likely have the most faith in here, had eight receptions for 101 yards against Seattle. It was his third 100-yard receiving game this season and first since Sept. 23 against Carolina.

But the brightest spot in the loss was kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn, who set a franchise record with a 61-yard field goal to end the first half. His previous long was 55 yards.

Fairbairn's longest field goal entering Sunday's game was 55 yards. ...

Elsewhere on the injury front. ... Receiver Davion Davis fractured his lower left leg Sunday and is out for the season, Culley said Monday.

Davis caught a pass for 17 yards in his only snap when his injury occurred. He made one catch in three targets in two games.

The Texans have had Anthony Miller, Danny Amendola, Chris Moore and Davis play the slot this season. Phillip Dorsett, signed to the Texans' active roster Saturday, is the next man up at the position.

Amendola went on injured reserve Dec. 4 after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee. He is expected back after four games, so Amendola could get back in time to play the final two games of the season.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Davis Mills, Kevin Hogan, Kyle Allen
RBs: Dare Ogunbowale, Rex Burkhead, David Johnson, Marlon Mack, Royce Freeman, Scottie Phillips
WRs: Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins, Phillip Dorsett, Chris Conley, Chris Moore, Danny Amendola, Davion Davis, Jordan Veasy
TEs: Brevin Jordan, Jordan Akins, Pharaoh Brown, Jeff Driskel

Indianapolis Colts

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Jonathan Taylor already feels as if he has played a full season.

The Indianapolis Colts running back has started 13 games, matching his rookie total. He has nine more touches than last year and his league-leading 18 touchdowns top his final numbers from 2020 and two of his three college seasons.

Naturally, Taylor needs a break. So he spent the bye week relaxing, recharging and re-committing himself to finishing strong.

"A late bye week, it's kind of a blessing and a curse," he said after rushing for 143 yards and two more TDs in last Sunday's 31-0 victory at Houston. "If you can make it to the late bye week feeling OK, then you've got an extra week to rest up and then you can hit that home stretch."

The 22-year-old Taylor insists he feels fine despite the hefty workload for 13 consecutive weeks.

Yet there's no indication the former Wisconsin star is slowing.

In Week 13, Taylor tied his career high -- set in Week 11 -- with 32 carries. He entered Week 14 as the NFL's only 1,000-yard rusher and came out of it still holding a 312-yard lead over Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon in the chase for a rushing title. He has even recorded 100 yards from scrimmage and a rushing TD in nine of Indy's last 10 games.

And just days after becoming the first Colts player to earn back-to-back AFC offensive player of the month awards, he opened December by posting Week 13 league highs in yards rushing and TD runs.

So how does he keep his roll going?

Taylor will rely on his unique workout routine to make sure he's running on all cylinders when the Colts return.

Before he was a second-round draft pick in 2020, Taylor improved his speed by competing in track. He developed a breathing technique to stay focused and did yoga twice a week to help with his flexibility while shortening his recovery time between games.

It's a combination Taylor believes has helped him stay healthy.

"Just getting a lot of body work and getting your mind off of football until the last two days when you kind of reset and start getting back into that mode," Taylor said when asked about his bye week plans. "But kind of completely unplug so you can refresh and be ready to go."

Taylor has been that more often than not as a pro.

Over the past 17 games, he has rushed for 1,846 yards and 22 touchdowns, caught 45 passes for 375 yards and three more scores while losing just three fumbles in 545 career touches.

He's on pace to become one of the youngest players in league history with 2,200 yards from scrimmage in a single season. And if he averages 163.0 yards per game when he returns from the bye, Taylor would be the youngest 2,000-yard rusher in NFL history.

But it's not those numbers that matter to Taylor.

"You try to find a crack that he really thinks he is the reason (for our success)," head coach Frank Reich said. "But everything is about the team and that's very, very special about him."

An extra week of rest in December could help Taylor and the Colts, too.

Indy is one of nine AFC teams with six or seven wins, vying for the final three playoff spots. None of Indy's final four opponents -- New England, Arizona, Las Vegas or Jacksonville -- are ranked among the top 15 run defenses.

And with winter weather coming and one of the league's top offensive lines paving the way, the Colts are likely to ride a recharged Taylor as far as he carry them.

Meanwhile, the Colts returned to their team complex Monday in a very different position than they left it -- with the inside track to a wild-card spot.

Losses by Cincinnati and Buffalo shook up the AFC playoff race, allowing Indianapolis to jump from ninth to sixth in the seven-team postseason field. The Colts now hold the top spot among five teams tied at 7-6 and are one game behind the Los Angeles Chargers for the No. 5 seed and the top wild-card slot.

Now comes the real playoff push.

Indy returns to action Saturday night against an old nemesis, the New England Patriots, in a potential playoff preview. At 9-4, the Patriots lead the AFC East by two games over Buffalo and currently hold the conference's top seed. Lately, it's been a lopsided series.

While the two teams have only played once since Reich took the Colts job after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels backed out of his agreement following a Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia, New England has won eight straight since Indy last won in 2009.

The road to the postseason won't get any easier after Saturday, either.

Indy visits Arizona, the NFC West leader, on Christmas night. Then the Colts host the Las Vegas Raiders before closing out the season at struggling Jacksonville.

Win all four and they're in -- despite starting 1-5. ...

The extra days off allowed Darius Leonard's troublesome left ankle and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner's hyperextended left knee extra time to heal.

Indy also is expecting center Ryan Kelly to return after he missed the Houston game because of a positive COVID-19 test. Reich said Kelly should be ready for Saturday night's crucial contest, too.

"Obviously, very excited to be in prime time at home, in Lucas Oil Stadium," Reich said. "I think it's going to be an electric atmosphere Saturday night up against obviously a very good opponent, a very good AFC opponent. So, we're looking forward to that challenge and looking forward to our fans providing an electric atmosphere."

The Colts have a relatively clean injury report but there are potentially two points of concern for Saturday night’s matchup with the Patriots.

Linebacker Bobby Okereke missed his second straight day of practice due to an illness. And tight end Jack Doyle was added to Wednesday’s report as a limited participant in practice with an ankle injury.

Okereke leads the Colts with 107 total tackles and has played nearly every defensive snap. He’s also recorded an interception, a sack, and three passes defensed.

Doyle has appeared in all 13 of Indianapolis’ games, making 27 catches for 291 yards with three touchdowns in 2021.

Kelly was upgraded from limited to a full participant.

Tight end Kylen Granson was also upgraded to a full participant on Wednesday after he was limited for personal reasons on Tuesday.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, Sam Ehlinger
RBs: Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Deon Jackson
WRs: Michael Pittman Jr., T.Y. Hilton, Ashton Dulin, Parris Campbell
TEs: Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, Kylen Granson

Jacksonville Jaguars

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Head coach Urban Meyer wants to take out the garbage.

And by garbage, he means the person or persons leaking information outside the organization regarding what's going on inside the facility. The latest report -- that he and receiver Marvin Jones had a screaming match, and that he called his assistant coaches losers -- came out Saturday.

Meyer denied both Sunday and said anyone leaking information risks losing their job.

"What's the answer [when things are going badly]? Start leaking information or some nonsense?" Meyer said after the Jaguars' 20-0 loss at Tennessee on Sunday, the fourth shutout defeat in franchise history and the first since a Week 5 loss to Seattle in 2009. "No. No, that's nonsense. That's garbage. I've been very blessed. I've not really dealt with that. I've not dealt with, 'Well, did you hear what he said?' What? No. Let's improve on offense and get our quarterback in a position to be successful. That's our focus.

"What someone's brother said, or someone said someone said, that will occupy very little of my time. And if there is a source, that source is unemployed. I mean, within seconds, if there's some source that's doing that."

League sources confirmed to ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco on Saturday an NFL Network report that Jones had to be persuaded to return to the team facility after leaving in response to Meyer's published criticism of the wide receivers. Sources also said Meyer and Jones had a heated exchange at practice after he did return.

However, Meyer on Sunday denied that he and Jones had an argument, and denied the NFL Network report that he called his assistant coaches "losers" and questioned their résumés during a staff meeting. Meyer said Jones did come to him to question what Meyer said about the receivers but that the conversation was not heated.

"Calling someone a loser, that's inaccurate," Meyer said. "I have high expectations for our coaches. I'm very demanding of our coaches and expect guys to be held accountable for their positions, and the times when they're not, we address it. But I assure you there was not whatever report. ... That's nonsense.

"[Regarding Jones] I think I said something like we have some injury issues and some lack of consistency. We talked about that, and he's great. We moved on. One thing about Marvin, and there's a lot of players, especially these professional veterans, there's a lot of pride. Some guys aren't used to this, and he's one of them. But he's fantastic and we have a fantastic relationship, and I started hearing that, and Marvin looked at me -- he walked by yesterday when I saw something on TV, like a heated argument, and he goes, 'I guess we're not allowed to talk anymore, are we?' and started laughing about it. So there's nothing."

Meyer said he planned to address the news reports with the team Monday, but he did speak with owner Shad Khan on Saturday night and for roughly 15 minutes after Sunday's loss. Meyer wouldn't say what the two spoke about other than to say that Khan has "been fantastic since the day I've been here, and we're going to do the best we can to win games. That's our job.

"Our focus is to finish the season strong and to make whatever adjustments we have to make to get this thing cooking."

As DiRocco pointed out, the offense on Sunday didn't even get warm.

The Jaguars managed just 184 yards -- the third time this season it has failed to surpass 200 yards, which is a franchise record -- and running back James Robinson had a career-low 4 yards on six carries. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw a career-high four interceptions (he never threw more than two in any game during his college career at Clemson), though one of those came after a ball bounced off receiver Laviska Shenault's hands.

As if the stats weren't embarrassing enough, Shenault and receiver Laquon Treadwell collided because one of them ran the wrong route late in the fourth quarter.

The end result was the Jaguars' 15th consecutive road loss, ninth consecutive loss to an AFC South opponent, eighth in a row in Nashville and fifth in a row overall. It's also just the second time in Meyer's coaching career in which one of his teams was shut out (Ohio State lost 31-0 to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal following the 2016 season).

"I assured [Khan] that I still believe in my heart that we will [turn the franchise around]," Meyer said. "It hasn't exactly materialized the way I expected it to have, the experience of winning games. I knew that this was somewhat of a build. I also really believe that we have plenty of good enough players to go win games. I still believe that.

"That's why I get so disappointed sometimes with our coaching staff or myself, because I think we can do better than we're doing. Really disappointed."

For the record, Khan said he will not make a hasty decision, nor will he be swayed by emotion, when it comes to Meyer.

Khan obviously isn't happy with the Jaguars' 2-11 record in Meyer's first season, but he told DiRocco Monday evening that he will do what he has done with every coach he has hired: Take a look at all the facts, speak with as many people as possible and then make a rational decision on what course of action, if any, he might take.

"I want to do the right thing for the team. I want to do the right thing for the city," Khan said. "That, to me, is way more important than just acting helter-skelter on emotion. I think we have a history of really looking at the facts and then really doing the right thing.

"Gus Bradley was here four years. Doug Marrone was here four years. It was wins and losses and this is a little bit different but, you know, I'm going to reflect on all of that and do what's the right thing for the team and the right thing for the city."

Based on Khan's history of patience with his previous head coaches, it shouldn't be surprising for him to wait until after the regular season ends -- the Jaguars play at the New York Jets (3-10) on Dec. 26, at New England (9-4) on Jan. 2, and finish the season at home against Indianapolis (7-6) on Jan. 9 -- before he makes any decision regarding Meyer.

"I'm not impulsive," Khan said. "I learned that a long time ago with anything that's this important. You don't want to be impulsive. You want to look at exactly what I know firsthand or people are telling me and then collect that and do the right thing. ..."

The Jaguars have a chance to end three losing streaks: a five-game skid overall, seven straight to Houston and an eight-game slide in the AFC South.

Fantasy interest?

It remains limited to Robinson and the hope that Jacksonville's rushing attack can get on track in a favorable matchup.

In fact, even if the Week 15 matchup against Houston offers some reprieve for Robinson, he's combined to record only 14 carries for 28 yards across his last two games.

So while you're definitely taking your chances with any Jaguars skill player not named Robinson, you're kind of taking your chances with Robinson as well.

One last note here. ... Carlos Hyde (concussion) did not practice Wednesday; I'll follow up via Late-Breaking Update as needed.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Trevor Lawrence, C.J. Beathard
RBs: Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo, B.J. Emmons, James Robinson
WRs: Marvin Jones, Christian Kirk, Laquon Treadwell, Zay Jones, Laviska Shenault, Jamal Agnew
TEs: James O'Shaughnessy, Evan Engram, Chris Manhertz, Luke Farrell, Dan Arnold

Kansas City Chiefs

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Dave Skretta noted this week, folks around the NFL have been wondering the past few weeks what the Chiefs would look like if they could marry their suddenly stingy defense with their traditionally prolific offense.

The Raiders had the misfortune of finding out Sunday.

The Chiefs' defense forced five turnovers, their offense turned them into 28 points, and Patrick Mahomes and Co. cruised the rest of the way to a 48-9 victory -- the largest margin in 126 games against their old AFL rivals.

It kept the Chiefs (9-4) one game ahead of the Chargers (8-5) heading into their Thursday night showdown in Los Angeles.

"We're playing a good football team this next week that we've already played once this season," said Mahomes, who threw two touchdown passes against Las Vegas. "We have familiarity with them. We still have to go out and do it. The defense is playing good football right now. Offensively, we're proving we can drive the length of the field."

As Skretta put it, "They did that with aplomb on Sunday."

The Chiefs already led 7-0 thanks to Mike Hughes' fumble return touchdown on the game's first play when Mahomes led them on an 80-yard touchdown march. He followed with another 80-yard TD drive a few minutes later, then needed to go just 39 yards for a third touchdown in three series, and a 28-0 lead.

Kansas City added another touchdown before halftime, along with a couple field goals by Harrison Butker and Frank Gore's 51-yard touchdown scamper, to surpass the previous record margin of 35 points against the Raiders set in 1960 -- the first year of the rivalry in the AFL.

The Chiefs hit that 35-point mark before the Raiders even crossed midfield offensively.

It marked the first time that Kansas City recorded 35-plus points in the first half of a game since Week 3 of the 2018 season, and the Chiefs' 32-point lead heading into the break was their largest halftime advantage since 2004. Additionally, it matched the fourth-largest halftime lead in franchise history.

The performance culminated in the second-largest halftime lead for any team in a game this season, and as the game went on, the advantage proved to be more than enough.

The Chiefs finished plus-5 in turnovers.

They gained 372 yards while surrendering 290, held Josh Jacobs to 24 yards rushing and sacked Derek Carr four times. They were 9 of 13 on third downs, averaged 6.5 yards per play and punted once.

In short, the defense continued its midseason surge while the offense finally showed up again.

"Listen, I'm proud of the way the guys are playing," said Andy Reid, who became the third Chiefs coach to win 100 games for the organization. "It doesn't matter if you're up or down; you have to keep going. Consistency becomes important."

That's especially given what's at stake against the Chargers on Thursday night.

The best part, from a fantasy perspective, was Mahomes showed signs of coming out of his midseason funk, throwing his first two TD passes since mid-November. He was 20 of 24 for 258 yards against Las Vegas while scrambling for another 20 in a confidence-boosting performance.

He spread the ball around to eight receivers in the contest, finding six different players on throws that gained double-digit yardage.

The five-year veteran also made some franchise history on Sunday, moving past Alex Smith for the third-most passing yards in a Chiefs' uniform (17,794). Mahomes now trails only Len Dawson (28,507) and Trent Green (21,459) in the franchise record books.

Kansas City will need to be hitting on all cylinders after losing to the Chargers earlier this season. Falling short in the return game Thursday night not only leave the two teams tied atop the AFC West but also give Los Angeles the tiebreaker with three games remaining. ...

Other notes of interest. ... Receiver Josh Gordon was placed on the reserve/COVID list Monday, according to the transaction wire.

Gordon signed with the Chiefs back in September after his latest reinstatement from a league suspension. Gordon started off on Kansas City's practice squad but was quickly signed to the 53-man roster. Nevertheless, he has only caught four passes for 27 yards this season. He scored his first touchdown since the 2019 season in Sunday's 48-9 victory over the Raiders.

According to multiple reports, Gordon tested positive for the virus.

If he's vaccinated, he has a chance to be activated in time for Thursday's contest against the Chargers with a pair of negative tests separated by 24 hours.

Meanwhile, Demarcus Robinson continues to slide down the wide receiver pecking list in Kansas City. He didn't have a single target while Gordon, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman all caught passes.

But back to the positives. ... Hill led the Chiefs in receptions (4) and receiving yards (76) in the game while recording some personal accomplishments in the process. The veteran pass-catcher surpassed 1,000 receiving yards on Sunday, notching the fourth campaign of his career with 1,000+ yards through the air.

The speedy Hill also set a new career-high in terms of receptions on the season with 90. Hill's previous high was 87, which he set in 2018 and later matched in 2020. His 90 receptions are also the most in a single season by a wide receiver in franchise history, topping the record that Hill shared with Jeremy Maclin (87 catches in 2015) prior to Sunday's game.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire tallied the second multi-touchdown game of his career on Sunday, both of which have coincidentally taken place against Las Vegas. The second-year tailback got around the edge for a 5-yard score on the Chiefs' third possession and then was back in the end zone a bit later with a 6-yard score.

Fellow tailback Darrel Williams also contributed to the win, hauling in a 23-yard touchdown reception on Kansas City's second possession of the game. Both of Williams' receiving scores this year have occurred against the Raiders.

It wasn't as great a day for Kelce, however.

In fact, Kelce was limited to three catches for 27 yards against the Raiders, the exact total he hit the week before.

The good news?

Kelce continues to draw the kind of targets we'd hope for with 12 over the last two games and 109, good for second-most on the team behind Hill, for the season. ...

In addition to Gordon, the Chiefs placed linebacker Willie Gay on the COVID-19 reserve list, the team announced. Defensive lineman Chris Jones was placed on the list earlier this week.

The Chiefs also won’t have cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Sneed was expected to return Kansas City from his hometown of Minden, Louisiana, but did not practice Wednesday.

Sneed also missed Sunday’s victory over the Raiders after the death of his brother, T.Q.

He has 62 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions in 12 games this season.

Offensive lineman Andrew Wylie (knee) is questionable but was a full participant all week. ...

And finally. ... Reid reached the century mark in terms of regular-season victories with the Chiefs on Sunday, joining Hank Stram (124) and Marty Schottenheimer (101) as the only coaches in franchise history to do so.

Of his 100 regular season victories, 39 have come against AFC West opponents, including 15 against the Raiders -- the most wins against any single opponent during his Chiefs' tenure. The victory also meant that Reid moved to 9-0 in his career when facing the Raiders for a second time in a season.

It all helped Kansas City secure a ninth-straight winning season.

Reid has now guided the Chiefs to a winning record in all nine seasons that he's been in Kansas City. No other team has posted a winning season every year since 2013, and only the Seattle Seahawks (who currently own a 5-8 record) have a chance to join the Chiefs in doing so.

The Chiefs have now won six straight games, and exactly 50 days after falling to 3-4 on the campaign, Kansas City now sits at 9-4 and in control of their own destiny in the AFC West.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
RBs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Derrick Gore, Ronald Jones
WRs: Mecole Hardman, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Marcus Kemp, JuJu Smith-Schuster
TEs: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, Blake Bell

Las Vegas Raiders

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The Chiefs took note that the Las Vegas Raiders gathered on their logo at midfield before Sunday's game and felt it added some fuel before their 48-9 victory over their longtime rivals.

"You definitely don't want people to come into your stadium and disrespect things that you kind of built," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "It gave us a little more motivation to go out there and win against a really good football team that we have a rivalry against that usually is a tough football game."

At the end of pregame warm-ups, Raiders defensive end Yannick Ngakoue summoned his teammates to midfield and then had some words for them before the team departed for the locker room.

"I don't think champions really act in that manner," Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said.

The Chiefs scored on the game's first play from scrimmage when cornerback Mike Hughes recovered a fumble by Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.

"That's pretty disrespectful," Hughes said of the Raiders moving to midfield for Ngakoue's pregame speech. "I'm glad we jumped on them the way we did."

Linebacker K.J. Wright acknowledged that his team's actions before the game might have given the hosts some added incentive.

"I would have been upset, too, if I was them," Wright said. "Anybody that comes there and do that? And they definitely came out and responded to their anger and we couldn't hold up.

"It was spur of the moment. One guy said, 'Let's go' and we all got to ride together. We all went out there together. We did it as a team and just gave them a little more motivation than we needed to give them."

Derek Carr and backup quarterback Marcus Mariota were the first two to run off to the locker room after the pregame speech.

"One thing I will say is, I always have my teammates' back," Carr said after a pause. "And I will forever have their back and if that's what we're doing, that's what we're doing. And, that's what I'll say."

The Chiefs were still sore going into the game about how the Raiders' buses, on their way to the Kansas City airport, took a victory lap around the stadium after winning in Kansas City last year for the first time since 2012.

The Chiefs played "Wheels on the Bus" over the stadium public address system after Sunday's game.

"We didn't want them winning here again," Mahomes said. "We went out there and handled business."

And it's fair to say the Raiders didn't.

The game only got worse following that opening fumble by Jacobs as the Raiders were handed their second-most lopsided regular-season loss in the Super Bowl era.

It was the fifth loss in the past six games for the Raiders (6-7), who have fallen from sole possession of first place in the AFC West to sole possession of last during this six-week stretch.

"I didn't expect this," Carr said. "I can't speak for everybody, but from my point of view, I didn't expect it to be like this. That falls on us as players and as coaches. Whenever that outcome happens, you've got to turn the tape on and see what happened. It's pretty obvious what happened from an outside perspective.

"But why? We're in the business of solving problems and not pointing fingers."

One problem that's been solved is how to get the ball down the field without Darren Waller in the mix: Passes to Hunter Renfrow.

As Associated Press sports writer Josh Dubow suggested, about the only thing the Raiders did well Sunday was get the ball in Renfrow's hands. He had 13 catches for 117 yards and a TD, becoming the first Raiders player with three straight games with at least eight catches and 100 yards.

But even Renfrow was part of the miscues, losing a fumble on one of his catches.

In fact, the Raiders turned over the ball five times on 10 drives in the game. Jacobs lost the early fumble, Renfrow and Zay Jones lost fumbles on catches, and Carr lost another on a sack. Carr also threw an interception on a pass that Foster Moreau bobbled into Mathieu's hands.

The last time an NFL team lost four fumbles in a game came last season when the Raiders did it against Atlanta.

The Raiders got off to a promising start under interim coach Rich Bisaccia with wins in the first two games after Jon Gruden's resignation.

Since then the team has lost five of six, with Bisaccia making questionable in-game decisions, coordinator Greg Olson's offensive looking unimaginative and Gus Bradley's defense getting picked apart.

More performances like this could lead owner Mark Davis to make a complete overhaul in the offseason.

On the injury front. ... Bisaccia said in his Monday press conference that Waller had made progress in his recovery from knee and back issues. But according to Las Vegas' injury report, he's still not ready to make it back to practice.

Playing the Browns on Saturday, the Raiders issued an estimated practice report for Tuesday. But Waller would not have practiced if Las Vegas held a full session then and he wasn't on the field Wednesday, either.

Waller hasn't played since the Raiders' victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. One of Las Vegas' most important weapons, Waller has 53 catches for 643 yards with a pair of touchdowns this season.

Safety Jonathan Abram (illness), cornerback Trayvon Mullen (toe), and linebacker Denzel Perriman (ankle) also would not have practiced on Tuesday.

Defensive end Maxx Crosby (calf), Moreau (abdomen), linebacker Patrick Onwuasor (hamstring), and defensive end Carl Nassib (knee) would have been limited. Nassib has also missed the Raiders' last two games.

Linebacker Marquel Lee (ribs) and safety Tre'von Moehrig (tooth) would have been full participants.

Additionally, the Raiders have activated running back Jalen Richard off of the reserve/COVID-19 list. Tight end Nick Bowers has been designated to return from injured reserve and the club signed defensive tackle Damion Square to its practice squad.

I'll have more on Waller and the rest via Late-Breaking Update as we head into Saturday's game in Cleveland.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Derek Carr, Nick Mullens
RBs: Josh Jacobs, Brandon Bolden, Ameer Abdullah, Peyton Barber, Jalen Richard, Kenyan Drake
WRs: Hunter Renfrow, Davante Adams, DeSean Jackson, Demarcus Robinson, Keelan Cole, Dillon Stoner, Mack Hollins
TEs: Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Jacob Hollister, Nick Bowers, Daniel Helm, Derek Carrier, Matt Bushman

Los Angeles Chargers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra framed it, "Justin Herbert heaved his MVP moment into the stratosphere the first half of Sunday's 37-21 beatdown of the New York Giants."

In a 10-point game with 25 seconds remaining in the first half, on 3rd-and-11 from their own 41, Herbert avoided pressure and uncorked a massive bomb down the seam to a streaking Jalen Guyton for a 59-yard TD. And the rout was on.

"When you see something special, normally it looks easy," Staley said of the TD pass, via Gilbert Manzano of the L.A. Daily News. "That's what he does. He makes the really, really challenging stuff look easy. And that's a pretty good indicator that you're witnessing something rare."

According to Next Gen Stats, Herbert's pass traveled 63.8 air yards, the second-longest completion in the NFL this season. It was the 10th of his career to travel 55-plus yards in the air, most in the NFL since 2020.

Please go back and read that previous sentence again. In 28 career games played, Herbert has 10 passes of more than 55 air yards. That is insane. He's also thrown an NFL-high seven 50-plus yard TDs.

"What you're witnessing is something special," Staley said of the QB's play.

Despite not having star receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers picked up a second consecutive win for the first time since early October.

Backup receiver Joshua Palmer and second-string running back Justin Jackson both stepped up when needed, receiver Mike Williams played well again and Guyton caught the big touchdown pass from Herbert at the end of the first half.

Guyton and Palmer combined for eight receptions, 153 yards and two touchdowns.

When offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi allows Herbert to toss bombs, the second-year QB rarely misfires, making seemingly impossible throws look routine.

Sunday, he threw for 275 yards, three TDs and a 133.1 passer rating. It marked the third time in the last four games Herbert had three-plus pass TDs. The prolific outing made Herbert the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 30 TDs in each of his first two seasons.

Herbert also hit the 8,000 passing yard mark for his career, making him the second fastest quarterback to throw for 8,000 yards in NFL history.

On Wednesday, Herbert was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the second consecutive week.

It all added up to an important win to keep pace with the Chiefs in the AFC West before the teams play Thursday night game at SoFi Stadium. The Chargers sit as the AFC's No. 5 seed heading into Week 15 but are just one win ahead of the No. 10-seeded Broncos.

If Herbert has another huge game against his rivals, in prime time, in a pivotal AFC West race, his MVP stock will shoot through the roof.

Not that the young QB is focused on accolades.

"It's one week at a time for us," Herbert said. "Coach (Staley) did a great job of emphasizing that all weekend. I feel like the guys were focused. They were dialed in this week and took care of business, and now we move on to the next one. We're facing a really good Chiefs team on Thursday."

The big question: Can the Chargers get healthy in time to face the Chiefs?

Allen and safety Derwin James Jr. missed Sunday's game and running back Austin Ekeler went out in the third quarter with an injury to his left ankle. The Chargers believe in their methods and approach, but having players such as Allen, James and Ekeler play would make their job easier against the Chiefs.

In addition, offensive tackle Rashawn Slater tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday and entered league protocols.

The good news?

Allen was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday and he practiced Wednesday, putting him on track to play Thursday against the Chiefs.

If, for some reason he doesn't make it back with the short turnaround, Palmer and Guyton will again be counted on. Staley said Palmer, drafted in the third round earlier this year, has done better on his releases off the line, while Guyton has regained his confidence after being lost in the shuffle.

"They have been on that mandatory with (Herbert) after practice developmental process," Staley said. "What that allows Justin to do is feel like, 'Hey, I can throw it to this guy when it's tight because I've got the time on task with him.' I'm really proud of both of those guys because Justin's a real hard guy to compete with. He really is. I'm excited about all of those guys."

Guyton has seven receptions for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games.

Whatever the case, he Chargers didn't practice on Monday, but they did issue an injury report because of Thursday's game against the Chiefs and it featured several key players on both sides of the ball.

Ekeler is included after aggravating his ankle injury on Sunday. Williams (heel) and a pair of tight ends -- Jared Cook (quad) and Donald Parham (knee) -- were the other offensive players listed as out to start the week.

Things improved on Tuesday and Wednesday, when all nine players the Chargers listed as non-participants in Monday's walk-through had limited work Tuesday -- including Ekeler, Williams, Cook and Parham.

Ekeler played 33 snaps and Williams 59 as the Chargers ran 71 offensive plays in the win over the Giants.
Ekeler had 14 touches for 84 yards, and Williams caught six passes for 61 yards.

On Wednesday, the team officially listed Ekeler as questionable while Williams, Cook and Parham came off the injury report.

I'll have more via Late-Breaking Update in advance of tomorrow night's kickoff. ...

One last note here. ... Running back Larry Rountree III was considered a short-yardage option this season, but the rookie was inactive for the third time and second in the past three games.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Justin Herbert, Chase Daniel, Easton Stick
RBs: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree III
WRs: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, Josh Palmer, DeAndre Carter, K.J. Hill, Josh Reed, Maurice Ffrench
TEs: Gerald Everett, Stephen Anderson, Tre' McKitty, Donald Parham

Los Angeles Rams

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry noted, cornerback Jalen Ramsey returned to Los Angeles on a private jet after producing a positive COVID-19 test, while tight end Tyler Higbee was left to wonder whether he had contracted the coronavirus at all after a series of tests produced differing results.

In the hours leading to kickoff against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football, the Rams were scrambling to make roster moves after Ramsey and Higbee joined three other teammates on the reserve/COVID-19 list, making them unavailable to play.

"My initial reaction was, 'You got to be s---ting me,'" head coach Sean McVay said about the situation. "You don't replace those kind of guys."

McVay was correct. His key playmakers are irreplaceable. But none of that proved to matter by the game's end.

Down four starters on reserve/COVID-19, and after having lost three of their previous four games, the Rams defeated the division-leading Cardinals 30-23. And now Los Angeles sits only a game behind Arizona in the NFC West after splitting the season series.

"We're playing good," said Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who had three sacks and a tipped pass. "We ain't arrived. We still got to do things to get us in a great position that we want to be in."

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford completed 23 of 30 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns, as the 13th-year pro ended a three-game losing streak on Monday Night Football.

"I felt good about it," Stafford said about his performance. "There were some things that you obviously want back ... but I felt like we managed the game really well."

Cooper Kupp caught 13 passes for a game-high 123 yards and a touchdown for the Rams, and he now leads all NFL receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns -- an accomplishment achieved at season's end by only three players since the merger (Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe and Steve Smith), according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

Four games into his tenure with the Rams, Odell Beckham Jr. continued to ingratiate himself with the offense after catching his third touchdown pass in as many games, marking the first time since 2015 that the eighth-year pro has recorded a TD reception in three straight games.

"It's just great to be having fun," Beckham said. "This is big kids at heart who love football."

Beckham finished with six catches for 77 yards, and Rams second-year wideout Van Jefferson caught two passes for 58 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown reception.

Running back Darrell Henderson Jr. was placed on the COVID-19 list on Saturday, followed by right tackle Rob Havenstein and cornerback Dont'e Deayon on Sunday.

Sony Michel started in Henderson's absence and rushed for 79 yards on 20 carries and reserve tackle Joe Noteboom started in Havenstein's absence.

But it's not going to get any easier this week.

The recent spike in COVID-19 cases among NFL players continues to take its toll on the Rams.

Beckham tested positive for COVID-19, as Josina Anderson of CBS Sports and USA Today first reported.

Beckham, along with defensive back Terrell Burgess, tight end Brycen Hopkins, defensive back JuJu Hughes, offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, defensive end Jonah Williams, defensive back Jordan Fuller and defensive back Tyler Hall were placed on the Rams' reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday.

LB Justin Hollins, TE Johnny Mundt and TE Jared Pinkney were added to the list Wednesday. Mundt is on IR due to a season-ending torn ACL; Pinkney is on the practice squad.

Higbee was activated off the list.

McVay called the situation "uniquely challenging," according to Jordan Rodrigue of The Athletic.

McVay said all players who have been designated for the reserve/COVID-19 list have been vaccinated. Henderson, Havenstein and cornerback Donte' Deayon remain on the list.

"There's going to be more people that are affected by this," McVay said, per Greg Beacham of The Associated Press.

McVay's comments came before news broke of Beckham's positive test.

The Rams are scheduled to play host to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. ...

Needless to say, I'll be following up on all involved via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

Worth noting. ... Monday night Michel's second-straight start for Henderson, who had been dealing with a thigh injury prior to going on reserve/COVID. As was the case in Week 13, when he rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown, his physicality helped the Rams clinch a big victory.

Even if Henderson returns this week, Michel's recent play would figure to keep him in the mix for carries, and he'd again be expected to carry a large workload if Henderson is unavailable.

And finally. ... If we're looking for positives here, look no further than Kupp, who has put himself in position to challenge the single-season reception and receiving yardage records.

As to the former, Saints receiver Michael Thomas set it in 2019, with 149 catches. Kupp, with 113 receptions in 13 games, is on pace to finish with 148 (technically, 147.7). And with 1,489 receiving yards in 13 games, Kupp is on pace for 1,947 receiving yards -- 17 short of the record set by former Calvin Johnson nine years ago.

Kupp's quarterback now, Stafford, was Johnson's quarterback then. And to the extent that the Rams have more than a little sizzle to go with a meal that at times has been more Salisbury than steak, they're surely aware of Kupp's pace and willing to try to help him get to one or both records.

As Profootballtalk.com suggested, some will say that any records set in a 17-game season should carry an asterisk.

However, no one said a word when records based on a 14-game season began to fall after the shift to 16 in 1978.

Regardless, it's no surprise that Kupp currently is the favorite (+125) to win the offensive player of the year award. And he's at +10000 to win the MVP.

Could Kupp win the MVP award?

The Rams would need to win the NFC West, and Kupp would need to break one or both of those records. Even then, remember that no receiver has ever won the award.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Matthew Stafford, John Wolford, Bryce Perkins
RBs: Cam Akers, Jake Funk, Darrell Henderson, Javian Hawkins
WRs: Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Tutu Atwell, Landen Akers
TEs: Tyler Higbee, Kendall Blanton, Brycen Hopkins, Jacob Harris

Miami Dolphins

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Tua Tagovailoa jogged off the field after the team's Week 13 win over the Giants, went into the Miami Dolphins locker room, completed his postgame media session and then returned to the field for a few moments. The game was long over. The 65,000 fans were gone.

Almost all of them, anyway.

"Tua, you the man," someone yelled from the seats.

According to Associated Press sports writer Tim Reynolds, that seems to be the consensus in Miami these days.

For those seeking gaudy numbers from a quarterback, Tagovailoa isn't the right choice. He has only one 300-yard passing game this season. But for those seeking effective numbers, that fan was right: Right now, he's the man.

Tagovailoa has posted four consecutive games with a passer rating over 100, the longest such active streak in the NFL and tying the second-longest such streak in Dolphins history behind someone named Dan Marino, who had six straight.

Broken ribs, a busted finger and trade talks dominated the first half of the season. Tagovailoa has overcome them all and is suddenly on a roll.

"He's definitely playing with a lot more confidence," Dolphins offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. "Just making quicker decisions, having better plans. And that starts with the offensive line giving him the ability to do all of that, to have confidence, not be worried about getting hit a lot. We need to make sure we're always on top of that. He's been just way more confident, which is making sure that he's having way more fun, which is ultimately helping him just go out and cut it loose."

The Dolphins, who return from the bye to play host to the New York Jets, have won five straight games, with Tagovailoa missing the first one of those against Houston because of an injury and then taking over in the second half against Baltimore in what became win No. 2 of the streak.

Put simply, he hasn't been the same player since coming back. In his first five appearances of the season, dealing with the broken ribs suffered in Week 2 and then a broken finger on his throwing hand, he was completing 65.6 percent of his passes with a rating of 85.9 and the Dolphins were terrible. In the four games since, even with the finger not fully healed for some of these games, he's completing 78 percent of his passes with a rating of 109.2 and the Dolphins have been unbeatable.

"He's a young player," head coach Brian Flores said. "Every time he gets snaps and every time he goes out there and plays, he gets a little bit more comfortable. He gains confidence. We've seen that in his play and hopefully that continues."

The numbers are changing.

The Dolphins are one of the last four teams to have their bye week this season. Some were off in early October; others, such as Indianapolis New England, Philadelphia and Miami, are getting theirs now, a break to recharge for a frantic finish.

But things aren't all rosy.

Three Miami running backs are on COVID reserve: Phillip Lindsay, Myles Gaskin, and Salvon Ahmed.

Gaskins went on the list last Friday; Ahmed was placed on the list Saturday; Lindsay was added Monday.

All three backs have reportedly been vaccinated and could be cleared to play Sunday.

In response to the positive tests, Miami elevated running back Duke Johnson to the active roster as a COVID-19 replacement on Monday from the practice squad.

The team also worked out some running backs Monday. Running back Lamar Miller, who played for the Dolphins from 2012 through 2015, worked out for the team on Monday. Others getting a workout on Monday were Benny LeMay, Jordan Scarlett and Dexter Williams. The Dolphins added Williams to the practice squad.

I'll be following up on the status of Gaskin, Ahmed and Lindsay via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

Meanwhile, one player who won't be back this week is Will Fuller. Flores said on Monday that the team does not think Fuller will be on the practice field this week.

Fuller has been out with multiple finger fractures since Week 4 and he didn't play the first two weeks of the season, so the Dolphins have only had him on the field for 65 snaps after signing him as a free agent this offseason. At this point in the season, it's fair to wonder if that will be all the return they get for their investment in the wideout, who is set for free agency next year after signing a one-year deal in Miami.

The Dolphins do expect center Michael Deiter to practice this week. He was in a walking boot after their Week 13 win over the Giants.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tua Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater, Reid Sinnett
RBs: Sony Michel, Chase Edmonds, Phillip Lindsay, Myles Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed, Malcolm Brown, Raheem Mostert
WRs: Jaylen Waddle, Tyreek Hill, Cedrick Wilson, Trent Sherfield, Albert Wilson, Preston Williams, Isaiah Ford
TEs: Mike Gesicki, Durham Smythe, Adam Shaheen, Hunter Long

Minnesota Vikings

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

After yet another harrowing finish, head coach Mike Zimmer didn't attempt to downplay his exasperation with the way the Minnesota Vikings have perpetually let large leads vanish and found themselves in precarious end-of-game situations.

The Vikings were ahead by 23 points at halftime last Thursday night. Even as they nudged their advantage to 29-0 late in the third quarter, they frittered away highly favorable field position and had to settle for field goals when touchdowns truly would have put the Pittsburgh Steelers away.

Were the Vikings actually thinking, "Here we go again," with a four-score lead at home?

"The whole time in the second half, yeah," Zimmer said.

The angst hovered in the stadium all the way through the final snap. The Steelers were within 36-28 with 12 yards and a 2-point conversion needed to tie. Ben Roethlisberger's on-target pass hit the hands of rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth and fell to the end zone turf after the well-timed arrival of safeties Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods to give the Vikings a must-have victory.

"That team that played in the first half for us was pretty darn good and I think could probably beat anybody," said Zimmer, who has watched the Vikings lose on the last play four times this season. "That team that played in the second half probably could get beat by anybody."

The Vikings (6-7) remained very much alive in the crowd of competitors for the last two NFC wild-card spots, one of seven clubs entering the weekend with either six or seven losses. At this point in an NFL season, inconsistent teams are just that, too late to truly put it all together and be considered a contender.

With the expanded playoffs, they'll remain relevant through the end of the schedule. They're the only team in the league without a loss by more than eight points. Even Arizona, Green Bay and New England have had one clunker.

"I'm trying to teach these guys how to finish. We talk about it all the time, being detailed about your job," Zimmer said.

In the snapshot of these squandered leads, the eyes always go first to the defense. But as Associated Press sports writer Dave Campbell suggested, as productive as Kirk Cousins and company have been with the ball on the whole this year, the offense must shoulder its share of blame for a repeated failure to deliver the knockout blows in games the Vikings have had well in hand only to white-knuckle it to the last second.

Even with the blockers up front bludgeoning the Steelers and Dalvin Cook racing his way to 205 rushing yards, there were hints of trouble for the offense with Adam Thielen sidelined. Cousins found Justin Jefferson wide open often, including for a touchdown in the first quarter off a play-action fake, but the normally precise quarterback misfired multiple times.

Cousins went 14 for 31 with two interceptions, in only the fourth time in 117 career NFL starts he failed to complete at least half of his passes. That only happened twice before with the Vikings: at Green Bay in 2019 and at Indianapolis in 2020.

"We've shown potential, but you've got to do it not only for four quarters, but for really four more games," Cousins said.

Still, the Vikings used a mix of their preferred zone running plays and some traditional gap blocking to gash the Steelers for 242 rushing yards on an average of 6.7 yards per attempt. That was their highest output on the ground in 21 games.

The Vikings will have a long turnaround before another prime-time kickoff at Chicago. This will be their fourth Monday night road game against the Bears in six years. The players were given four full days off before they must return to practice.

"I think they need to get away from me a little bit," Zimmer said. "When we get back, we need to really hone in on being more disciplined."

Said Peterson: "When coach tells us, 'I won't see you 'til Tuesday,' that was awesome news. ..."

Meanwhile, the Vikings announced Monday that Alexander Mattison has been placed on the list. The Vikings also claimed running back Wayne Gallman off waivers. Gallman most recently played for the Falcons and spent the last four years with the Giants.

Two other Vikings, receiver Dan Chisena and practice squad guard Kyle Hinton, were placed on Reserve/COVID-19 as well.

On Tuesday, receiver and punt returner Dede Westbrook was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Westbrook has averaged 8.3 yards on 22 punt returns this season in 12 games. He's also caught nine passes for 64 yards.

If Mattison, Westbrook and Hinton are vaccinated and tested positive, there's a chance they'll be back in time to hit the field against Chicago on Monday night. They would need two negative tests separated by 24 hours to return to the club.

Also on the health front. ... Sprained ankles can be slow to heal, so Thielen's status remains unclear. He might have to miss another game, though the fact the Vikings didn't place him on injured reserve means he ought to be back for at least the last three games. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw has missed the last two games with the same injury.

More on Thielen, Mattison and Westbrook via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Kellen Mond
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu, Wayne Gallman
WRs: Justin Jefferson, K.J. Osborn, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Dede Westbrook, Adam Thielen
TEs: Chris Herndon, Brandon Dillon, Ben Ellefson, Irv Smith Jr., Johnny Mundt

New England Patriots

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Jimmy Golen suggested, it's not exactly the 199th overall pick, but drafting Mac Jones in the middle of the first round is turning out to be quite a steal for New England.

The heir to Tom Brady in the Patriots (9-4) huddle has emerged as the top quarterback from his draft class -- and so far the best rookie overall -- despite being the No. 15 pick and the fifth QB selected in the NFL draft last spring.

Jones' accelerated development has ended talk of an extended rebuilding period without Brady, returning the Patriots to the top of the AFC and sending them into their off week on a seven-game winning streak.

"The last part of the season is the most important part. Nothing that you did before that matters," Jones said this week as he prepared for his first free weekend as a pro. "The bye week's important just as a self-evaluation for what you can do as a player, as an offense, and obviously taking coaching and figuring out ways to improve. That's all you can ask for."

Brady was the greatest pick in NFL history when he was selected in the sixth round -- No. 199 overall -- of the 2000 draft. With him as quarterback for two decades, the Patriots won six Super Bowls and reached the title game three other times.

Head coach Bill Belichick has been working on a succession plan at least since 2014, when he drafted Jimmy Garoppolo; since then, Jacoby Brissett, Danny Etling and Jarrett Stidham had all been brought in for a try.

But when Brady signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent in 2020, things became more urgent. The Patriots signed 2015 MVP Cam Newton to run the offense, but that failure -- a 7-9 record that left them out of the playoff for the first time since Brady was injured in 2008 -- forced Belichick to do something he'd never done before: draft a quarterback in the first round.

While the rest of the league jockeyed for a chance to pick Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, who went Nos. 1-2-3, or even 11th overall pick Justin Fields, the Patriots stood pat and grabbed Jones at No. 15.

And he has outplayed all the others.

A 23-year-old who won a national championship at Alabama, Jones leads all rookies with 270 completions for 2,869 yards and 16 touchdowns, making him the overwhelming favorite to win the NFL's offensive rookie of the year award. He is third among all quarterbacks with 70.3 percent passes completed and 10th in completions.

With two away games left, Jones has already tied the NFL record held by Dak Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger for most road wins by a rookie quarterback, with six. Most importantly, the Patriots have the No. 1 seed in the AFC after beating division rival Buffalo 14-10 on Monday night.

"It comes down to winning games. That's what makes it fun, winning games," Jones said. "When you do that, it's a lot more fun."

Jones attempted only three passes in a gutsy and gusty win over Buffalo on Monday night, and if there is anything he has lacked so far it's the ability to throw long. He was 24th in the league with a 10.6 average yard per completion.

But they said the same thing about Brady when he took over for injured gunslinger Drew Bledsoe as a second-year player in 2001.

"There have been ups and downs along the whole deal, and it's very fast-paced and all," Jones said. "But I think it's just being consistent is the most important part. Everyone's going through it. It's not just me.

"I'm just trying to do the same thing because I enjoy it and it is fun to come in every day. Sometimes you have good days and bad days, but you've just got to keep pushing towards the final goal. ..."

Meanwhile, the Patriots added Jones to their practice report about 90 minutes after the release of their initial practice report.

He was a full participant with a left thumb injury. He was listed as the same on Wednesday.

It is unclear when Jones hurt the thumb on his non-throwing hand, but he threw only three passes in the Patriots' last game on Dec. 6. The Patriots had a bye last week.

It is Jones' first appearance on the practice report this season.

Running back Damien Harris (hamstring), safety Adrian Phillips (knee), tackle Trent Brown (calf/wrist), center David Andrews (shoulder), defensive lineman Christian Barmore (knee), linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (ribs), running back Brandon Bolden (knee), kicker Nick Folk (left knee) and linebacker Ronnie Perkins (illness) were limited.

Harris was moving well after he left the Buffalo game just before halftime after appearing to tweak his hamstring in the second quarter. He returned to the game and then pulled up on his first carry of the second half.

If Harris is limited on Saturday, Rhamondre Stevenson has handled one start so far in his career and all he did was finish as the second-highest-scoring running back for the week. He's a very talented player on one of the better rushing attacks in the game, and ESPN's Field Yates believes the rookie would be in the neighborhood of a top-15 play if Harris can't go.

I'll have more on Harris via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Mac Jones, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham
RBs: Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, James White
WRs: Kendrick Bourne, DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kristian Wilkerson, N'Keal Harry, Lil'Jordan Humphrey, Ty Montgomery
TEs: Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Devin Asiasi

New Orleans Saints

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Alvin Kamara was not eased into the New Orleans Saints' offense after the dynamic running back returned from an injury-induced four-game absence.

Kamara earned 31 touches on 50 snaps in Sunday's 30-9 shellacking of the New York Jets. The dual-threat RB toted the rock 27 times for 120 yards and a TD, adding four catches for 25 yards.

In the process, Kamara broke the NFL record for most receptions by a running back in the first five years of his career. He entered the game tied with Roger Craig at 358.

With the Saints still missing key pieces, including backup running back Mark Ingram (reserve/COVID-19), head coach Sean Payton was unapologetic about utilizing Kamara heavily despite the RB dealing with knee and hamstring issues.

"This was a little bit of us feeling offensively that we're going to have a handful of things with Alvin back and (tackle) Terron (Armstead) back, so we wanted that balance," Payton said. "I knew Alvin would be in good shape because he's been training. He gave us some real good juice and energy. He always does."

The 27 carries were a career high for Kamara, who generated 94 of the Saints' 129 first-half scrimmage yards.

"I'm back, I'm healthy, so it is what it is," Kamara said of his workload. "There wasn't an option to me, like getting less of a load. I wasn't limited or anything, so that's just how the game unfolded. I got a good load."

Kamara's return helped the Saints break a five-game losing streak. Without him, the Saints went 0-4, scoring 18.3 points per game and rushing for 98.0 yards per game. In nine games with the dynamic back, the Saints are 6-3, averaging 25.7 PPG and 131.9 rushing YPG.

As NFL.com suggests, no back is more vital to his club's success than Kamara.

His ability to turn two yards into 10 keeps the offense on track. And the mere threat of him on the field provides quarterback Taysom Hill a viable threat.

"Statistically, obviously, the numbers speak for themselves," Hill said of Kamara. "But, man, just having his presence on the field and having the ability to hand him the ball and all of that stuff, like he just does so much for this team, just being there."

On Sunday against the Jets, the "All Kamara Offense" was enough to get a win. But will it be enough against better clubs?

The Saints sit at 6-7, among a cluster of five six-win clubs vying for the final NFC playoff spot. With games against the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Panthers and Falcons on tap to close the year, the Saints will need even more of a spark in their passing game going forward if they want to keep their slim playoff hopes alive -- especially in their most difficult remaining matchup Sunday night in Tampa.

But Kamara gives them a fighting chance.

The Saints also got left tackle Terron Armstead, defensive end Marcus Davenport and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson back from injuries Sunday -- and should get right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (knee), defensive end Cameron Jordan (reserve/COVID-19), Ingram (reserve/COVID-19) and Ty Montgomery back soon, among others. ...

Meanwhile, if you're wondering how tight Hill's grip on the starting QB job is, ESPN.com's Mike Triplett suggests it probably didn't get any tighter or looser Sunday -- even though he did put a nice exclamation point on the victory with his 44-yard touchdown run in the final minutes and finished with 73 rushing yards and two rushing TDs.

Hill, who is playing through a mallet finger injury on his right throwing hand, was good enough as a passer in this matchup, completing 15 of 21 passes for 175 yards with zero turnovers. But it was a fairly uninspiring performance against the NFL's 32nd-ranked defense. The Saints will need more of a spark in that area down the stretch.

For the time being, it doesn't look as if the Saints are going to beat anyone by relying heavily on their passing game. New Orleans' most productive receiver against the Jets was tight end Nick Vannett, who had three catches for 44 yards. The Saints finished with 141 net yards passing.

One last note here. ... Reserve running back Tony Jones Jr. will need to be more productive if he wants to continue to receive carries after Ingram returns. Jones gained just 10 yards on six carries (1.6 yards per carry).

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taysom Hill, Andy Dalton, Ian Book, Jameis Winston
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Tony Jones Jr., Dwayne Washington
WRs: Jarvis Landry, Marquez Callaway, Tre'quan Smith, Michael Thomas, Deonte Harris
TEs: Adam Trautman, Nick Vannett, Juwan Johnson

New York Giants

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The Giants will again be without quarterback Daniel Jones this week against the Dallas Cowboys because of a neck injury, as Dan Duggan of The Athletic first reported.

In addition, a source told ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan that Jones underwent his weekly round of tests Monday and was not cleared for contact.

According to Raanan, the injury did not worsen, but the images still prompted the medical professionals involved to err on the side of caution.

Mike Glennon is likely to start again in Jones' place. Recently acquired quarterback Jake Fromm could also see some action.

Jones still has a chance to return this season but at some point the Giants will have to decide if the risk is worth the reward. They only have three games remaining after this week and are out of playoff contention with a 4-9 record.

Meanwhile, there is optimism internally that defensive lineman Leonard Williams could return this season (maybe as early as this week) after he suffered an arm injury Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, according to a source. Initial fears of a serious injury were dispelled during tests Monday.

Williams has never missed a game for injury in his career.

Rookie receiver Kadarius Toney (oblique) has missed three-straight games. Toney, who was close to playing this past weekend, was placed on the reserve-COVID-19 list on Monday evening. John Ross joined him on that list Wednesday.

Jones has missed the past two games, both losses, because of a neck injury suffered in a win over the Philadelphia Eagles last month. Glennon started in his place, throwing for 191 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a 37-21 loss to the Chargers on Sunday.

But Jones has been remaining in playing shape despite not being cleared for contact. He went through an extensive pregame workout Sunday in Los Angeles.

According to Raanan, this has been the awkward part of the situation.

Jones has been able to do everything -- running full speed, rolling out, throwing across the field -- without limitations. He just hasn't been able to play on Sundays because he was not cleared for contact.

The Giants and Jones have been hopeful that he could get cleared, but also couldn't say with any certainty that he would be back at some point this season. There has been nothing since the injury that indicated the strain had gotten worse.

"I have nothing negative, nothing [I'm] less optimistic about, if that makes sense," head coach Joe Judge said earlier Monday. "I have no information that tells me anything is going in a different direction. So we're waiting eagerly like you guys are to hear what the doctors say and see where it is for this week."

Jones, 24, has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,428 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. It's not exactly what the Giants or their young quarterback were hoping for this season.

This was supposed to be the year that Jones made that substantial leap. It's his third professional season after being selected with the No. 6 overall pick in 2019, and the Giants added weapons in hope of building an explosive offense around him.

It just hasn't worked out. The offensive line has struggled to pass protect, the team's top playmakers haven't been able to stay healthy, and Jones' performance has, at times, been uneven.

The Giants even fired offensive coordinator Jason Garrett last month and added to Freddie Kitchens' responsibilities. That gave Jones his third different playcaller in his first three years in the NFL.

Meanwhile, Saquon Barkley wants to be there when the Giants get back on a winning track.

The 24-year-old running back has seen plenty of losses since the Giants drafted him No. 2 overall in 2018, but he said he doesn't want to go anywhere else despite speculation about his future in New York.

"I plan on being a big reason why we turn this thing around," Barkley told The Associated Press on Tuesday for an upcoming episode of the "AP Pro Football Podcast."

"That's just my mindset, that's my thought process. When I got drafted here, I said I want to be here for the rest of my life. I was born in New York, I'm from Pennsylvania. I live an hour and some change from my parents' house. This is where I started my career, where I would love to finish my career. I know this thing is going to turn around and I would love to be a part of the reason it does."

The Giants already picked up the fifth-year option on Barkley's rookie contract, so he's signed for $7.2 million in 2022. Barkley has only 379 yards rushing in nine games this season after missing the final 14 games in 2020 because of a torn right ACL. He has missed 21 games since a spectacular rookie season when he gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage -- 1,307 rushing and 721 receiving.

"I put a lot of hard work in the offseason and during the season with my knee, and also having to rehab my ankle," Barkley said, mentioning the ankle injury that forced him to miss four games this year. "But last week, watching film, I felt like my burst was there a little bit. I felt like my explosiveness is there. I just have to keep going, keep trusting in the system, keep trusting my body, keep trusting the rehab and just keep my head down to keep working."

The Giants (4-9) already secured their fifth straight losing season and eighth in nine years. Judge's job security is under scrutiny and general manager Dave Gettleman might not be around to even make that decision.

Judge said Monday the team is heading in the right direction even though its record doesn't indicate it. He has Barkley's support.

"I think we've bought in," Barkley said. "We have the guys that are bought in. We work. We love football. We have guys who are committed to it. But that's everywhere in the NFL. That's why it's so hard to win in the NFL.

"We have just been very unfortunate as a team, as an organization, whether it's injuries or just the way we lost games. But it's all part of the building process and it's going to change at some point.

"And, when it does, it's going to be a beautiful story."

As Associated Press sports writer Tom Canavan notes, New York's 6-10 record and good finish last season in Judge's rookie season was a sign of hope and progress.

Right now, long-term success seems light years away.

The Giants were terrible on Sunday. Los Angeles led 37-7 early in the fourth quarter and New York just made it closer in garbage time.

The loss ensured a fifth consecutive losing season overall, and fans are getting fed up. The four-time Super Bowl champions have made the playoffs once (2016) since winning the Lombardi Trophy in February 2012.

After Sunday's ugly game, Judge reiterated he continued to see the team making progress. On Monday, he spelled out the progress after being asked to expound on it.

Judge sees good, young players developing at key positions. He said the team has the right type of players on the roster, ones who are willing to put the team first, represent the organization in a positive light and play and practice hard.

"When I took this job, I made it very, very clear that I was only going to do this if we were all committed to doing this the right way and that's been something that's been very clear from ownership on down," Judge said Monday, adding co-owner John Mara and Steve Tisch have been very supportive.

When asked if those same owners had told him he would be back for a third season, the tone of Judge's voice changed. He seemed bothered by the question.

"Let me make this really perfectly clear, my or anybody else's hypothetical future, I'm never going to comment (on)," he said, adding his sole focus is on the Giants' game against the NFC East-leading Cowboys (9-4) on Sunday.

Dallas won the first game 44-20, with Jones leaving just before halftime with a concussion. New York also has road games at Philadelphia and Chicago before closing against Washington on Jan. 9 at MetLife Stadium.

As for the injured players. ... I'll have more on Toney and Jones via Late-Breaking Update as the week progresses.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jake Fromm, Brian Lewerke, Tyrod Taylor, Daniel Jones, Mike Glennon
RBs: Saquon Barkley, Gary Brightwell, Matt Breida
WRs: Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, John Ross, Darius Slayton, C.J. Board, Sterling Shepard
TEs:

New York Jets

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

According to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, after every game, win or lose, Zach Wilson ventures over to the defensive side of the Jets' locker room, where he checks in with the guys on the other side of the ball -- a veteran move by the rookie quarterback.

On Sunday, he delivered a mea culpa.

"I have to do better," Wilson told them, according to linebacker C.J. Mosley.

"Wilson's message was well received," Cimini wrote, "one of the few times all day he made a short-area connection."

It wasn't a good day for the Jets' hope for the future, who completed a season-low 45 percent of his passes in a 30-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints at MetLife Stadium. It was a tough spot, no doubt. Wilson didn't have his top four playmakers, all injured, but that was no excuse for his accuracy issues, especially on short throws.

It might be unfair to expect him to lift a franchise from the depths of losing, but it's not asking too much to hit a 2-yard pass to a wide-open Ryan Griffin or a bubble screen to wide receiver Braxton Berrios, both of which had a 93 percent completion probability. Wilson wound up short-hopping both passes, like a second baseman bouncing a throw to first base.

That's the concern with Wilson.

As Cimini explained, the youngster can make some throws that only a few quarterbacks can pull off, but he's stunningly inaccurate on gimmes. He was all over the place, completing only 19 of 42 passes, including just 16-for-29 inside 10 yards. This wasn't a one-day deal; it's a season-long trend.

He finished with a season-high 13 off-target passes, per NFL Next Gen Stats, meaning one of every three attempts was deemed off the mark.

"It's something he has to improve on -- I'm not going to hide from that -- but it's not something that we're concerned about," head coach Robert Saleh said. "[It's] just something that we have to keep working on."

That said, Cimini contends Wilson should be graded on a curve for Sunday because not only were top receivers Elijah Moore and Corey Davis out with injuries, but the B-team also did him no favors. Backup running back Ty Johnson dropped three passes in the first quarter, the first Jets player since Jerricho Cotchery in 2007 to have three drops in a game.

Outside receivers Keelan Cole and Denzel Mims struggled to gain consistent separation against the Saints' man-to-man coverage. At one point, Mims didn't even know where to line up, drawing an illegal-formation penalty that drew Saleh's wrath.

Mims, who committed penalties on back-to-back plays, was benched for the rest of the game.

So Wilson didn't have much support, but it's a two-way street. At the same time, he didn't raise the play of those around him, failing to build on last week's encouraging outing against the Philadelphia Eagles. The only silver lining was that he made it through the entire game without an interception -- a first.

The Jets (3-10) were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday, extending their league-high active drought to 11 seasons -- tied for the longest in franchise history. The growing pains are acute -- for the team and for Wilson.

"We always have his back," said Mosley, the defensive leader. "Whether he throws interceptions or fumbles or makes a big play, we're not going to talk about him behind his back. We're not going to shame him and say, 'You have to do this,' because we respect what he does."

"Zach is the future of this organization," Saleh said Monday. "He's the No. 2 pick, he's extremely talented, he's got a great head on his shoulders, he's a phenomenal young man and these are the types of games he has to go through. He has to learn how to play football in the NFL. He has to get these reps."

Wilson has one of the toughest jobs in sports, playing quarterback for a franchise on a 50-year search for the next Joe Namath, but he has to do better than 45 percent. It was the second-lowest completion percentage this season in the NFL, based on a minimum of 40 attempts. The lowest?

Sam Darnold, his predecessor.

Next up, the Jets will head to Miami to face the AFC East-rival Dolphins for the second time, looking to even the season series after a 24-17 loss at home on Nov. 21. But the Dolphins are coming off their bye-week break and are on a five-game winning streak. ...

Worth noting, Saleh moved all of the meetings this week to virtual as a precaution because of the rise in COVID-19 cases around the league and two players -- RB Austin Walter and DL Ronnie Blair -- dealing with non-COVID-19 illnesses. ...

According to Cimini, Saleh confirmed the team expects Michael Carter to return from injured reserve this week. Once designated to return, the Jets have a 21-day window to activate him. Fantasy managers should watch closely. The rookie averaged 19 touches per game in Weeks 7 through 10.

If he's activated, Carter immediately moves back into RB2 territory against the Dolphins.

The coach is also hopeful that Tevin Coleman (concussion) and tight end Tyler Kroft (chest) will return this week.

Carter and Kroft were officially designated to return from IR on Wednesday.

I'll have more on all involved via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco, Mike White
RBs: Michael Carter, Ty Johnson, Austin Walter, Tevin Coleman, Lamical Perine
WRs: Braxton Berrios, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims, Jeff Smith, Corey Davis
TEs: C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin, Kenny Yeboah, Trevon Wesco

Philadelphia Eagles

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

The Philadelphia Eagles began the season in rebuilding mode with a rookie coach and unproven quarterback. They enter the final month in position to make a playoff push.

According to Associated Press sports writer Rob Maaddi, "That's progress."

The good news for the Eagles on their bye week is that Washington lost to the Cowboys.

The bad news is that the 49ers, Vikings, Falcons and Saints all won.

Those results have the NFC playoff picture looking mighty cloudy heading into the final month of the season. But with four games to go, the Eagles are still very much in the mix -- just one game behind in a jumbled NFC wild-card race.

With a favorable schedule over the last four weeks, many fans would consider it a disappointment if Philadelphia doesn't get into the postseason.

The Eagles have come a long way since the top priority for 2021 was figuring out if Jalen Hurts should be the starting quarterback in 2022.

"Obviously get your bodies right here, but what are you going to do to be 1-0?" coach Nick Sirianni said this week about his team. "That's kind of the mentality we have about our process, about how we go through the week, how we put ourselves in position to go 1-0 each week, not thinking too far ahead, learning from your past mistakes, past successes, but not thinking about those but being completely in the moment."

The Eagles turned their season around after a 2-5 start by turning to the run game. Led by Hurts, they've become the NFL's top rushing offense following a streak of six straight games with 175-plus yards on the ground. They've had three different leading rushers in those games - Hurts, Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard - and four players have had at least one 75-yard rushing performance during that span.

"I think you're always evolving and changing to make sure you're doing the best things for your players," Sirianni said. "I think we definitely changed who we had been and who we are, and to find out what we do best. I don't want to talk about particular plays, but our style is being together, playing together as a team, being tough and being physical. And so that's kind of the mentality we have, the identity that we have, of 'Hey, this is who we are,' and we're just trying to tailor things around that to allow those things to shine -- the togetherness and the toughness and the physicality of the game. And that's what I think we've been doing these last two months of the season."

Hurts sat out last week's 33-18 win over the lowly Jets because of an ankle injury, and Gardner Minshew kept the offense rolling. But despite a touch of Minshew Mania in Philly, there's no quarterback controversy. Hurts will be the starter when healthy. He has four more games to prove he could be the long-term answer, though it's possible the Eagles could spend another season evaluating Hurts.

Before he had his worst game as a pro in a loss to the Giants on Nov. 28, Hurts had steadily improved throughout the season. Questions remain about his accuracy and he has struggled at times within the pocket, but he's a dual-threat talent who puts stress and pressure on defenses.

"He's played really good football when he's in, so when he's healthy and he's back, he'll be our starter," Sirianni said of Hurts.

The Eagles will have three first-round picks in the 2022 draft and there's been plenty of speculation they'd use those picks to trade up for a quarterback or acquire a veteran. But Hurts has played his way into the conversation. He can strengthen his case with a strong finish that helps Philadelphia secure a playoff berth.

The Eagles host Washington (6-6) and the Giants (4-8) the next two weeks. They'll visit Washington on Jan. 2 and close out the regular season at home vs. Dallas (8-4). There's a possibility the final game against the Cowboys could be for the NFC East title. It's more likely Dallas would have secured the division by then.

Regardless, the fact the Eagles are even in the playoff mix this late in the season is a major step forward for a franchise that was in disarray last year. ...

On the health front. ... Sirianni told reporters on Wednesday that Hurts is “trending upward” in his recovery, but he won’t be taking all the first-team reps in the team’s walkthrough practice. Sirianni said Minshew will also take some snaps.

“We’ll see,” Sirianni said. “We’re going to do what we need to do and walk through today. ... Last walkthrough, both Gardner and Jalen got reps and will do the same thing today. Then we’ll see how everything goes tomorrow.”

In addition, Sanders has had extra time to heal an ankle injury that caused him to leave the game early in Week 13, but his status for Week 15 is unknown.

If he were to miss time, Boston Scott might be the preferred option in the backfield, according to ESPN's Field Yates. While Jordan Howard would likely carve into Scott's goal-line opportunities if Howard is back from a knee injury in Week 15, Yates believes Scott is the best overall option from the Eagles as a stash add.

I'll have more on all involved -- and Hurts, Sanders and Howard were all listed as limited participants to start the week on Wednesday -- via Late-Breaking Update in coming days....

Meanwhile, the Eagles announced on Monday afternoon that they have placed running back Jason Huntley and wide receiver Quez Watkins on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Huntley has spent the entire 2021 season on the team's practice squad.

Watkins is one of the NFC's leaders in yards per catch this season among wide receivers with 15.8, good for sixth in the conference. Watkins has 31 catches for 491 yards, starting 10 of the team's 13 games in 2021. He has three catches of 40-plus yards this season, including a 91-yarder back in Week 2 against the 49ers, which marked the fifth-longest reception in franchise history.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jalen Hurts, Gardner Minshew
RBs: Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell
WRs: DeVonta Smith, A.J. Brown, Jalen Reagor, Zach Pascal, Greg Ward, Quez Watkins, JJ Arcega-Whiteside
TEs: Dallas Goedert, Jack Stoll, Tyree Jackson

Pittsburgh Steelers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

Mike Tomlin keeps throwing bodies at the problem. Buddy Johnson. Marcus Allen. John Leglue. Rashaad Coward. Ray-Ray McCloud.

None of them figured to be part of the plan last summer. Not in a meaningful way, anyway. Yet all five found themselves on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers during Thursday night's 36-28 loss to Minnesota as Tomlin searched not so much for a spark but some semblance of urgency for a team on which urgency is in desperately short supply.

Ultimately, it wasn't enough. Again.

The defensive front seven was gashed. Again.

The offensive line was pushed around for far too long. Again.

As a result, it was another step back in a maddeningly uneven season in which the Steelers have flip-flopped between competitive and confounding with alarming regularity.

Pittsburgh (6-6-1) has one victory in its last five games. The four non-wins (including a tie with Detroit) fit a largely familiar pattern. The opposing quarterback turns around and hands it off to a running back who sprints through gaping holes. The Steelers' offense spins its wheels for long stretches before showing signs of life, typically after it's too late.

"It's Groundhog Day," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "It's unacceptable."

As Associated Press sports writer Will Graves noted, "It's also reality."

Injuries and ineffective play have overwhelmed the defensive front seven. The new-look offensive line littered with rookies or practice squad players turned contributors like Leglue and Coward remains an erratic mess three months into the season.

In theory the Steelers are still alive in the wide-open AFC, where every team with a pulse seems to have a shot. Yet whatever wiggle room existed is now gone, and the idea they can find consistency against good teams -- something that's been elusive for 13 games -- is a very tough sell.

"We have a long week coming up, and we will make good use of that time and assess what we are doing and what we are doing with it," Tomlin said. "We will do whatever we can to strengthen ourselves."

That's part of the problem. In early December, the options are limited. Pittsburgh has spent most of the last four months doing the NFL's equivalent of dumpster diving by plucking players off waivers or other teams' practice squads in search of impactful depth. The results, like everything else, have been scattershot at best.

"To be blunt, we are getting handled up front on both sides of the ball, and that makes it difficult, difficult to do what we desire to do," Tomlin said. "Difficult to maintain balance. It makes it difficult to dictate to our opponents what happens and what happens next."

It's been that way for much of the year. Narrow wins against largely mediocre clubs thrust Pittsburgh into the postseason mix. It increasingly looks like the surge was done with smoke, mirrors and the All-Pro play of outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

Watt spent the second half on the sideline in sweatpants after tweaking a groin injury. It's the third time Watt has found himself out of action late. In those games, the Steelers are 0-3.

Tomlin is hopeful linebacker T.J. Watt and cornerback Joe Haden will be available when Tennessee visits Heinz Field on Sunday and there's a sense of urgency to that.

"We're running out of time," Ben Roethlisberger said.

It may already be up.

That said, Graves points out the offense has looked sharp during the swoon with one major caveat: That sharpness only comes into focus when the Steelers are playing from behind, often hopelessly from behind. Pittsburgh has tried to establish the run and play deliberately early in games.

Maybe it's time to just let Roethlisberger, whose status beyond this season is uncertain at best, let it rip and let him go down swinging with the Steelers still in the mix in the AFC North. Tomlin, however, did not spend the weekend poring over the standings.

"I do not care," he said "My agenda is the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn't waste any of my time this weekend pondering that perspective. I was just looking at our place in this fray and the things that we're capable of getting accomplished."

Tomlin is confident Pittsburgh can accomplish those things with wide receiver Chase Claypool.

Claypool drew widespread criticism for inexplicably dropping to a knee to make the first-down motion after converting a fourth down on Pittsburgh's last drive, a motion he did with the clock ticking that briefly delayed the officials' chance to spot the ball, a move that cost the Steelers valuable seconds.

Tomlin called the maneuver "a misstep" but declined to publicly take the talented second-year receiver to task.

Claypool was also benched in the first half for drawing a personal foul penalty but also caught eight passes for 93 yards.

Tomlin pointed out the 23-year-old Claypool is still in the early stages of his career and remains an unfinished product.

"It can't happen fast enough for him, and it can't happen fast enough for us," Tomlin said. "We're going to continue to push that growth and development as long as he's a willing participant. He has been, and so we're just gonna keep moving forward."

Meanwhile, Najee Harris carried the ball 20 times for 94 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. He caught 3-of-3 targets for an additional 10 yards and another touchdown. All in all, exactly the kind of high-volume, productive day fantasy managers hoped for when they drafted the rookie.

Diontae Johnson caught 5-of-10 targets for 76 yards and a two-point conversion in the Steelers' Week 14 loss to the Vikings. He had one carry for seven additional yards. The 10 targets give him double-digit opportunities in all but two games this season. That he failed to haul in a pair of end-zone targets (one of which resulted in a defensive pass interference call) was disappointing, but also encouraging in that he got them.

Beyond that, Johnson 131 targets on the season rank third in the league. That is volume worth chasing.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth caught 2-of-3 targets for 32 yards and a touchdown in Minnesota. It wasn't a busy night, but it was plenty productive thanks to the touchdown. In fact, the rookie had a very good chance at a second touchdown as the game ended, and that's what we need from him: Touchdowns.

Even with the volume being slightly less than we'd like on a weekly basis, the seven touchdowns he's scored this weekend keep him on the streaming radar.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ben Roethlisberger, Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins
RBs: Najee Harris, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage, Anthony McFarland Jr.
WRs: Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Cody White, Gunner Olszewski
TEs: Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry

San Francisco 49ers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As NFL.com's Kevin Patra noted this week, the 49ers have clawed their way back from the brink, with Sunday's thrilling 26-23 overtime road victory in Cincinnati thrusting Kyle Shanahan's 7-6 club into the No. 6 seed with a one-game buffer over a cluster of six-win teams.

The key element to Sunday's wild win was tight end George Kittle, who made spectacular play after spectacular play after spectacular play after spectacular play after spectacular play after spectacular play. ... Followed by more spectacular plays.

Kittle caught 13 of 15 targets for 151 yards and a TD, many of them of what Patra characterized as being of the "he did what?!?" variety. Whenever Jimmy Garoppolo needed a big play, he looked Kittle's way.

"I know that when coach Shanahan calls my name, I've just got to go out there and execute," Kittle told the team's official website. "When you have that opportunity, you've just got to make the play, and fortunately, I made the play more than I didn't make it tonight."

Kittle made a ridiculous leaping grab late in the fourth quarter to set up the potential game-winning field goal. After Robbie Gould's miss forced overtime, Jimmy G looked Kittle's way on a big third down with the Niners trailing in the extra period. The tight end made a sliding grab in traffic on a pinpoint pass to move the chains. The Niners won the game on the next play on a catch and run by Brandon Aiyuk.

"That's a different dude," Aiyuk said of the tight end. "Huge third down plays, just plays all over the field. ... That's a special dude, real special dude."

Added Garoppolo: "George showed out today. He really did. When you have a guy like that you can lean on, it's a nice feeling as a quarterback."

On Wednesday, Kittle became the first tight end to claim NFC Offensive Player of the Week since the Dallas Cowboys' Blake Jarwin in Week 17 of 2018

The Niners' resurgence has come since Kittle returned from injury in Week 9, after going 1-2 sans the TE, falling to 3-4 on the season. San Francisco has gone 4-2 with the star TE back in the lineup.

Kittle has spearheaded the offense, particularly the last two weeks. His 13 receptions Sunday are a season high and tied for the second-most in his career. Last week at Seattle, Kittle had nine receptions for 181 yards and two TDs in the loss. He became the first TE in NFL history Sunday to have back-to-back games with 150-plus receiving yards and 1-plus receiving TD -- the last WR to accomplish the feat was Mike Evans in Weeks 8-9, 2019.

Kittle leads the NFL in receiving TDs since he returned from injured reserve in Week 9 with 6, a career high for a single campaign.

The Bengals found out just how difficult it can be to slow down the Iowa product.

"When a guy is that explosive, and that big, that good of hands, that catch radius, he makes a lot of plays. And I promise you, we tried like hell to take him away, and he just finds a way to make those plays," coach Zac Taylor lamented after the loss.

In case you missed it, the Niners overcame a late-game comeback by Cincinnati on Sunday, the aforementioned missed potential winning field goal by Gould and a lost coin toss at the start of overtime to beat the Bengals 26-23 and solidify their playoff positioning.

"We almost blew it," defensive end Nick Bosa said. "But we didn't. We did a good job and we made the plays that we needed to make."

Bosa had lamented the blown opportunity the previous week in Seattle when turnovers and other miscues led to a 30-23 loss to the Seahawks that ended with two incomplete passes into the end zone.

San Francisco's biggest stars made sure there wasn't a repeat in Cincinnati and the 49ers won for the fourth time in five games.

Bosa sacked his former college teammate Joe Burrow on a third down in the red zone to force Cincinnati to kick a field goal on the opening possession of overtime.

Garoppolo then completed all six passes for 78 yards on San Francisco's overtime drive, including a 21-yarder to Kittle to get into field goal range and another 9-yarder to Kittle on third-and-7 to keep the drive alive.

The Niners then won it on a 12-yard TD pass Garoppolo to Aiyuk.

With the victory, the Niners moved into the No. 6 seed in the NFC with four games to go. With a dominant defensive front and a diverse offense, it's the type of San Francisco team we expected to see entering the season.

With games against the Falcons, Titans, Texans and Rams remaining, stacking a few more victories would push Kittle and Co. back into the postseason. ...

On the injury front. ... Elijah Mitchell (concussion, knee) was trending toward being out against the Bengals all week, but there's a good chance he's able to play against Atlanta. As usual, we'll just have to keep up with the latest practice reports ahead of Sunday, but Mitchell, who didn't practice Wednesday is virtually a must-start if he can go.

As The Sporting News notes, Atlanta has given up the seventh-most fantasy points to RBs, so Mitchell would be a great play if available. Jeff Wilson Jr. has underperformed in the games where he was the primary back, but a lot of that has to do with Deebo Samuel taking a lot of important touches.

Wilson will still draw some flex appeal if Mitchell is out, though he's clearly risky.

Kittle (knee soreness) also did not practice Wednesday.

I'll have more on Mitchell and Kittle (if need be) in coming days; watch the Late-Breaking Updates section for more. ...

A few final notes here. ... After a rough start to his second season when he lost Shanahan's trust, Aiyuk is back to his promising rookie form. He had six catches for 62 yards Sunday, including the aforementioned game winner in overtime for his fourth touchdown of the season.

And finally. ... Samuel carried the ball eight times for 37 yards and a score to go along with one catch (on one target) for 22 yards on Sunday.

The athletic wideout missed the 49ers' previous game with a groin injury but looked healthy in this one. He picked up his fifth rushing touchdown in the last four games with a 27-yard run early in the second quarter. Samuel has been a fantasy star this season, racking up 1,268 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

He should continue to thrive in his newfound backfield role next week when the 49ers take on the Falcons.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance
RBs: Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Trey Sermon
WRs: Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner, Jauan Jennings, Mohamed Sanu, KeeSean Johnson
TEs: George Kittle, Ross Dwelley, Tanner Hudson, Charlie Woerner, Tyler Kroft

Seattle Seahawks

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As Associated Press sports writer Tim Booth noted, there was always something blocking Rashaad Penny from matching the potential that came with being a first-round pick.

Injuries -- a finger, a bad hamstring, a balky calf muscle or a major knee reconstruction -- and the presence of Chris Carson have kept him from moving up to the first team during his time in Seattle.

Carson is the one hurt now, though, and Penny is healthy, which meant he got his second career start against the Texans last Sunday.

Penny made the most of it by running 16 times for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

"These guys never gave up on me," Penny said. "Go out to practice every day and just keep working and this is the results. I'm just thankful."

Alex Collins, Travis Homer and Adrian Peterson remain on hand as backfield options, but head coach Pete Carroll indicated that Penny is going to continue to fill the lead role in the backfield.

"I think he deserves a shot to show that, to start it out," Carroll told Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times. "We'll still rotate to keep you guys fresh, but yeah, we're gonna give him a shot again to come right on back and see if we can keep going."

The Seahawks didn't exercise their fifth-year option on Penny's contract, so he's set for free agency at the end of the season.

Matching Sunday's effort in the weeks to come should help generate interest in his services around the league.

Penny's big day was part of Seattle's mostly dominant performance and a second straight victory.

And at least on the offensive side, it was a blueprint of what Pete Carroll has been seeking all season -- an excellent run game, punctuated by big plays through the air by Russell Wilson and specifically Tyler Lockett.

It's entirely possible this was a one-week aberration, especially when it comes to Penny's big day and the run game as a whole. The Seahawks were facing the 32nd-ranked run defense in the league. They had to be able to run the ball against the Texans.

But it's one of the first times this season there's real optimism where Seattle is headed offensively.

"I don't think we've played better than we played yesterday in terms of the mix and all that," Carroll said. "Russell was 115 (passer rating). ... So I thought the way we were able to mix everybody benefited from that, and the balance of the attack and execution on third down made everybody better."

It was a solid performance by Wilson. So he all the way back?

According to ESPN.com's Brady Henderson, Wilson's starting to look like himself as opposed to the version who struggled with accuracy and made a few bad decisions in his return from finger surgery. He missed a couple of more throws Sunday, including one that was behind DK Metcalf on a quick slant near the goal line.

But it was nothing like the head-scratching misfires that marred his first three games back.

Wilson (17-of-28, 260 yards) connected with Lockett on some vintage plays, including a 55-yard moon ball for the first of his two touchdown passes and a few other well-placed balls to Lockett on the sideline.

His decision making was also good, often taking what was there as opposed to forcing deep throws.

If Wilson is truly back, that would be the best reason to think the Seahawks can make something of their final four games, even though their playoff chances are still slim.

In fact, the reality of Seattle's playoff hopes likely comes down to Sunday's game at the Rams. A loss would be seemingly insurmountable with three weeks remaining and such a logjam for the final couple of wild-card spots in the NFC. A win should keep Seattle at worst one-game back with home games against lowly Chicago and Detroit the following two weeks.

Meanwhile, Lockett continues to feel like one of the more underappreciated wide receivers in the NFL.

He became the second player in Seahawks history with three straight seasons with 1,000 yards receiving after catching five passes for 142 yards on Sunday. Lockett joined Hall of Famer Steve Largent as the only two Seattle players to accomplish that feat. Lockett now has 1,023 for the season and needs just 35 yards receiving to set a new career-high. ...

Metcalf caught 4-of-8 targets for 43 yards Sunday.

As CBSSports.com notes, Metcalf and Wilson haven't been on the same page this season, as the third-year wideout has posted 60 or fewer yards in six straight games while failing to find the end zone in five of those contests. Still, he has been targeted eight times in four of the past five games, so the opportunities should convert into production soon. ...

This has not been the strongest season for kicker Jason Myers, who missed two extra points on Sunday. Myers has three misses on extra points this season and is just 11 of 16 on field goal attempts. Last year, Myers was 24 for 24 on field goals and made 49 of 53 extra points.

Carroll told reporters on Wednesday that Adrian Peterson was “running around” in the team's morning walkthrough. Has “a chance” to play at Rams after missing Houston game with low-back pain. ...

And finally. ... It started early this season.

Last February, Wilson's agent Mark Rodgers went public with four landing spots his client would consider if he were traded. Wilson has a no-trade clause. Sources say this came after Wilson requested permission to speak with teams but was denied because Seattle didn't want to trade its franchise QB.

This year, independent reporter Jordan Schultz, who has ties to Wilson's camp and is the son of Seattle businessman Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, reported that Wilson would strongly consider waiving his no-trade clause for the Broncos, Giants and Saints.

While Wilson didn't deny it, he insinuated it was not relevant, adding, "I'm focused on what we're doing here. Obviously I love Seattle. This is a place I've loved every day, every moment."

Wilson is under contract for two more years for $51 million, and the Seahawks have two franchise tags available after that. Coach Pete Carroll is always youthful, but he is 70 and would seem unlikely to want to rebuild.

Absent a better option at QB or a suitable replacement, the Seahawks could just stand pat and rebuff offers like last season. Either way, as Seattle gets set for the home stretch, Wilson's future is now very much in focus.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Drew Lock, Geno Smith, Jake Luton
RBs: Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer, Adrian Peterson, Chris Carson, Alex Collins
WRs: DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Freddie Swain, Marquise Goodwin, Penny Hart, D'Wayne Eskridge
TEs: Noah Fant, Will Dissly, Colby Parkinson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As NFL.com's Jelani Scott put it, "The storybook career of Tom Brady added a few more must-read chapters on Sunday night. ..."

In what Scott characterized as "a fashion almost as cool as Brady himself," the Buccaneers quarterback found receiver Breshad Perriman for a game-winning touchdown to notch his 700th career passing TD (regular season and playoffs combined) for a thrilling 33-27 overtime win against the Bills.

It marked just the second time in Brady's career (Week 7, 2003) that he's tossed the deciding score in OT.

"It's pretty rare, you know? But it was very cool," Brady told reporters. "I'd much rather not have it come down to that, but, in the end, they all count the same, you know? And we got to learn from it and we got to move on and, obviously, we're playing for a division championship next week which is pretty exciting for all of us."

For much of Sunday's affair, Brady and the Bucs were in control against one of the league's best defenses, jumping out to a 24-3 lead going into halftime. But a second-half surge by Josh Allen and the Bills' high-powered offense evened things at 27 just as regulation ended.

After Tampa's defense came away with a crucial stop, Brady and Co. took the field once again with 8:48 on the clock. Seven plays into a drive that saw Brady find Chris Godwin for a gain of six and Rob Gronkowski for a big 14-yard chunk play, the veteran calmly stepped into his throw like a closer on the pitcher's mound and connected with Perriman on a five-yard strike which he took 53 yards upfield for the game-winning score.

The completion was Brady's 31st of the evening, widening the gap he forged earlier in the game when he passed Drew Brees for the most completions in NFL history. He needed 18 to set the new mark; he now has 7,156 completions to his name.

"I don't think about those things," said Brady when asked what he's going to do with his latest record-setting paraphernalia. "People kind of tell me they happen, that's pretty cool. I keep some jerseys and stuff like that but yeah it's pretty neat. It's just amazing to have so many people share in all those great accomplishments that, obviously, to me, I feel like they're all team awards anyway so anyone who ever caught a touchdown pass, they're part of something pretty cool in NFL history, anyone that had a completion for that matter.

"And, obviously, the guys that came before me doing it like Dan Marino and Peyton [Manning] and Drew and some other incredible players that I always looked up to. So, this is a great moment."

On a night where Brady also broke a tie with Brees for the second-most seasons with 4,000-plus yards passing (12), the 44-year-old enters Week 15 looking as sharp as ever as the leader of a team that can clinch the NFC South title.

No player has ever been as successful at the position as Brady and it'll be a long time before we ever see anything like it again. Young lions still eager to take down the G.O.A.T. will have to keep waiting for a letdown that's yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have 10 wins and are on the brink of clinching their first division title since 2007. Still, the reigning Super Bowl champions don't feel they're playing nearly as well as they're capable.

"We all know we can play a lot better than that," Brady said after Sunday's win nudged the Bucs (10-3) closer to their first NFC South title in 14 years.

The Bucs won for the fourth straight time since dropping back-to-back games at New Orleans and Washington. The three-time defending division champ Saints, who trail Tampa Bay by four games with four to play, visit on Sunday night. The Bucs can clinch the NFC South and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game by beating New Orleans.

"I have so much respect for that team and especially that defense and what Sean (Payton) does with whoever they have playing quarterback. It's going to be a heck of a ballgame," head coach Bruce Arians said.

"T-shirt and hat games are big. They're fun locker rooms," the coach added. "Hopefully, we play (well) enough against them that we can put them on."

According to Associated Press sports writer Fred Goodall, despite being 6-0 at home and in the thick of the race with Arizona and Green Bay for the top playoff seed in the NFC, the Bucs feel they've yet to truly hit their stride.

Injuries have contributed to inconsistency on defense, and even the Brady-led offense has been a work in progress.

While the 44-year-old quarterback leads the NFL with 4,134 yards passing and 36 touchdowns, opponents who are able pressure Brady in the pocket have had success slowing down the league's highest-scoring team.

The Bills did that Sunday after allowing 303 yards and 24 points in the first half, holding the Bucs to three points in the second half to force overtime.

Arians was asked if learned anything about his team.

"Really nothing new," the coach said. "We know how to win. I would just like to see us not make it that close. ..."

Other notes of interest. ... Leonard Fournette, who's working on a one-year contract for the second straight season, is making a strong case to be part of Tampa Bay's future as an every-down back. He had another big game Sunday, rushing for 113 yards on 19 carries and scoring on a 47-yard run in the first quarter.

In addition to rushing for 778 yards and eight TDs, the fifth-year pro is third on the team with 62 receptions for 421 yards and two TDs.

Fournette rejects the notion that he's proving he can be an every-down back.

"I've been an every-down back, to be honest," he said. "A lot of people talk about me catching, but I had (76) receptions in Jacksonville (in 2019). ...

A week after having 15 catches for 143 yards against Atlanta, Godwin had 10 receptions for 105 yards against Buffalo. ...

The Buccaneers have placed running back Giovani Bernard on injured reserve and signed punter Sterling Hofrichter to the team's practice squad.

The Bucs also announced Tuesday that wide receiver John Hurst was released from the practice squad.

Bernard suffered a hip injury during the second half Sunday.

The ninth-year pro has been used primarily on third downs this season, rushing for 58 yards on eight carries and catching 23 passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns.

Also on the injury front. ... Fournette (ankle) did not practice Wednesday; I'll have more on that via Late-Breaking Update in coming days.

Antonio Brown's three-game suspension for misrepresenting his COVID-19 vaccination status ends next week. Arians said Monday that he hasn't made a decision on Brown's future with the team.

"I haven't made that determination yet, but we'll see how it goes," Arians said.

Several sources in the building have said that Brown has been a "model citizen" during his time with the team and has benefited from being with Brady. The quarterback has gone out of his way to support Brown but would not comment specifically on his suspension.

Arians previously expressed his disappointment over the player's decisions.

"We'll talk as an organization," Arians said. "It's coming up soon. When we know, we'll let everybody know."

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Trask
RBs: Leonard Fournette, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Giovani Bernard
WRs: Russell Gage, Mike Evans, Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, Scott Miller, Chris Godwin
TEs: Cameron Brate

Tennessee Titans

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

It took the Tennessee Titans a month to find themselves. According to Associated Press sports writer Teresa M. Walker, this version looks pretty comfortable atop the AFC South.

After two turnover-filled debacles and a bye week, the Titans ended up on the other side of a turnover-fest and got back in the win column Sunday.

It surely helped that they faced woeful Jacksonville and rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

The opportunistic Titans took advantage of four interceptions to beat the Jaguars 20-0 and earn their first home shutout in more than two decades.

Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Kristian Fulton and Buster Skrine picked off passes from Lawrence, who hadn't thrown three or more interceptions in a game since his NFL debut.

"At the end of the day, we know what kind of team we are," Titans safety Kevin Byard said. "And I felt like the last two losses we had, we kind of got away from that a little bit. ... It wasn't necessarily about the Jaguars and their team. It was more about us know what we needed to do and playing to our strengths."

Tennessee dominated Jacksonville's offensive line, sacking Lawrence three times and prompting four holding calls and a false start. All the interceptions were a direct result of pressure, but not blitzes.

"There's no better indication of success in this league than turnover margin," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "You can say what you want, but you can look it up over 20 years. It's real critical that we realize that that's how we have to play."

The Titans (9-4) turned the ball over a combined nine times in consecutive losses to Houston and New England. They spent the bye week focusing on better ball security and responded with a clean game on offense and plenty of celebrations on defense.

It was the team's first shutout since 2018 at the New York Giants and its first at Nissan Stadium since Christmas Day 2000, a 31-0 drubbing of Dallas.

Jacksonville (2-11) provided the perfect remedy for Tennessee's two-game skid and the Titans moved closer to clinching the AFC South for the second straight year.

The win over the Jaguars put Tennessee one game behind the Patriots for the top seed in the AFC. Tennessee now turns their sights to Sunday's road trip to play the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-6-1) at Heinz Field. They have no one left on their schedule with a winning record. And, if they continue playing clean football, could be a factor in the AFC despite being without star running back Derrick Henry.

D'Onta Foreman, filling in for Henry, had his first rushing touchdown in four years. Ryan Tannehill, the main culprit of the team's recent turnovers, didn't commit one despite getting sacked four times and ran for a score. He completed 20 of 31 passes for 191 yards.

Dontrell Hilliard carried the ball six times for 13 yards. He failed to catch either of his two targets. Coming off a 131-yard, one-TD rushing day in Week 13, we've likely explored the full range of possible outcomes for Hilliard over the last two games.

With Jeremy McNichols back in the mix, fantasy managers should view him as a secondary option in a three-man committee going forward.

As such, Hilliard should be viewed as a flex play against the Steelers in Week 15. ...

Receiver Julio Jones retuned to the lineup for the first time in more than a month but didn't do a whole lot. He didn't need to, either.

Jones, who missed the past three games with a hamstring injury, was activated from injured reserve Saturday. He has missed six games this season because of injuries.

Can a healthy Jones eventually emerge as a threat in the passing game?

As Jones played 32 snaps (50 percent) on offense for the Titans. Tannehill found Jones on four out of six targets for 33 yards.

They did attempt to get Jones the football on a deep post off of play action. But the pass rush knocked Tannehill off his spot, causing him to come off his read to Jones.

According to ESPN.com's Turron Davenport, Jones reached 18.9 mph on the play which was his fastest speed of the game.

At this point, it seems doubtful that Jones will emerge as the dominant threat that he once was with the Titans.

The Titans on Tuesday placed receiver Dez Fitzpatrick on the team's Reserve/COVID-19 list.

The Reserve/COVID-19 list was created for a player who either tests positive for COVID-19 or who has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons. If a player falls into either of these categories, his club is required to immediately place the player on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Fitzpatrick, who was among the team's inactives this past Sunday against the Jaguars, has played in three games for the Titans this season.

The Titans face the Steelers this Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Ryan Tannehill, Logan Woodside
RBs: Derrick Henry, Dontrell Hilliard, Khari Blasingame, Trenton Cannon, Jordan Wilkins
WRs: Nick Westbrook_Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath, Dez Fitzpatrick, Cameron Batson, Robert Woods
TEs: Geoff Swaim, Austin Hooper, MyCole Pruitt

Washington Football Team

Compiled by FootballDiehards Editor Bob Harris | Updated 14 December 2021

As ESPN.com's John Keim notes, even as the Washington Football Team continued to win games, vaulting back into playoff contention, the injury losses mounted.

And because of that, it will have a harder time earning a playoff berth.

Washington (6-7) currently holds the NFC's seventh and final postseason spot with four games remaining, but keeps losing key contributors. Its four-game winning streak ended Sunday and its hopes for an NFC East title all but vanished with a 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys (9-4).

While some players might return for Sunday's road game against the Eagles (6-7), others -- notably receiver Terry McLaurin (concussion) and defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (reserve/COVID-19 list) -- might be out. That revolving door has existed for much of the season.

Washington has overcome it thanks to good depth, but how much more can this team take? It has 13 players on injured reserve, eight of whom were starters or key backups when the season began.

Other teams might have worse injury situations, but Washington might not have as much margin for error. While it was expected to contend for the NFC East title this season, few would have viewed the team as capable of more than 10 regular-season wins.

However, given its playoff position with four games left, the team can't dwell on who's missing.

"I wouldn't say it's insurmountable, but it will test your depth more than anything," head coach Ron Rivera said. "That's where you get concerned."

The players don't buy injuries as a reason for a dropoff, either.

"We don't concern ourselves with that," safety Landon Collins said. "We just look at the next person like, 'We need you.' ... You never know when it is your opportunity to play."

In the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss, Washington was using its third quarterback of the season and its fourth center. Their top receiver, McLaurin, exited with a concussion. Its top tight end, Logan Thomas, was lost for the season with a left knee injury suffered the previous week. Third-down back J.D. McKissic missed his second consecutive game with a concussion.

Their starting right tackle, Sam Cosmi, is on injured reserve with an injured left hip. Their projected starting quarterback this season, Ryan Fitzpatrick, played two quarters in Week 1. His replacement, Taylor Heinicke, has had some solid games and some bad ones, including on Sunday, when he departed with a left knee injury in the fourth quarter.

Heinicke said after the game that his knee was fine and he should be ready to face the Eagles in Week 15. On Monday, Rivera told reporters in his press conference that Heinicke is sore and the team will monitor him over the course of the week.

Kyle Allen replaced Heinicke and went 4-of-9 passing for 53 yards.

Heinicke also played through an elbow issue on Sunday. He finished the game 11-of-25 for 122 yards with a touchdown, an interception, and a lost fumble.

On defense, the injuries and absences have been concentrated in one area: End. Chase Young already was lost for the season thanks to a torn right ACL. That injury occurred one game after fellow end Montez Sweat (jaw) was placed on injured reserve. But Sweat was expected to return this week -- until he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Which would have been OK had the replacement ends, James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill, not been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 within 24 hours of the game. That meant, in a pivotal game, Washington had no ends with previous starting experience. Smith-Williams and Toohill might return Sunday.

Washington's top three ends in Sunday's loss -- Shaka Toney, Daniel Wise and Bunmi Rotimi -- combined for 122 snaps in the first 12 games this season. They played a combined 153 snaps against Dallas.

"That's not an excuse," Rivera said. "Those guys are professionals. Other guys got their opportunities. They had their moments. They're young guys. They made some mistakes. But it gave them some experience and an opportunity to play."

It's not as if Washington's defense was the issue Sunday. It held Dallas to 20 points (another seven came on a scoop-and-score fumble return) and 4.1 yards per play. Dallas QB Dak Prescott was intercepted twice; running back Ezekiel Elliott managed 45 yards on 12 carries.

But Rivera said a bigger factor Sunday was fatigue; Washington had played in Las Vegas last week after hosting a Monday night game the previous week.

He also said the issue isn't playing less-talented players.

Rather, it's about experience. The silver lining for Washington is having to play multiple backups in big games should help its depth in the future.

With all the injury issues, they may well have to do the same against the Eagles on Sunday. ...

Also of interest. ... One constant during Washington's winning streak was a steady dose of the running game: Controlling the clock, taking pressure off Heinicke, setting up the play-action pass and giving the defense a breather. Falling behind against Dallas kept that from happening, and Washington ran the ball only 23 times.

"They seemed to be winning at the point of attack," Rivera said of the Cowboys.

Running back Antonio Gibson fumbled for the sixth time this season, his first since the fumble at Carolina on Nov. 21 that led to his benching. Rivera benched Gibson again in the loss to Dallas but said the coaching staff would continue working with the second-year pro.

"It happens," Gibson said. "It can happen, but you've just got to shake it off and keep going. ..."

Curtis Samuel was active for a third-consecutive week after missing eight of the club's first 10 games of the season due to a lingering groin injury.

Still, Samuel was on the field for just 14 of the team's 68 offensive snaps -- a decrease from the previous two weeks where he played 20 snaps each against the Seahawks and Raiders.

Rivera admitted the team needs to get Samuel, its prized free-agent acquisition, more involved in the offense moving forward.

"I think it came down to play-calling and personnel, more than anything else," Rivera said when asked about Samuel's lack of usage. "He's a guy that we've got to get the ball in his hands and rolling. We'll work on that."

Samuel did not register a catch on Sunday and was targeted just twice throughout the game. In the five games he's played for Washington this season, Samuel has touched the football just 10 times for a total of 38 scrimmage yards. He has not scored a touchdown yet this season, either.

The current production from Samuel is not what Washington hoped for when they inked the 24-year-old to a three-year, $34.5 million contract this past March.

Although Samuel's 2021 season has been a wash thus far, the coaching staff has not lost confidence in him. Rivera has repeatedly referred to Samuel as a "dynamic" player and believes it's only a matter of time before he has a bigger role.

"Believe me, when he gets rolling and gets the ball in his hands, he can be very explosive for us," Rivera said.

There's a good chance Samuel's number will be called more on Sunday against the Eagles, too.

If McLaurin is unable to go, Washington will need Samuel and the rest of the receiver room to step up.

That said, Samuel (groin) was not seen at practice Wednesday.

Stay tuned. ... I'll have more on Heinicke, who said his elbow felt good during Wednesday's practice, McLaurin, and McKissic, neither of whom were on the practice field Wednesday, and Samuel via Late-Breaking Update in coming days. ...

The Washington placed cornerback Kendall Fuller and defensive tackle Tim Settle on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and activated CB Darryl Roberts off the COVID list. ...

One last note here. ... Thomas faces a longer recovery after further tests revealed a torn ACL, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter. Thomas is expected to undergo surgery this week and be ready for the start of the 2022 season.

Washington initially feared that Thomas had torn the ACL and MCL in his left knee in a Dec. 5 game vs. the Las Vegas Raiders. However, more tests the following week revealed knee damage -- but not to his ACL. The organization breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing his recovery would be a lot easier without a torn ACL.

But even last week, after Thomas was placed on injured reserve, Rivera said doctors were going to "keep an eye on it. They're going to have one more doctor look at it."

Before putting him on IR, Washington had debated keeping Thomas on the active 53-man roster in case the team made the playoffs and could use him at some point in the postseason. Because it was his second stay on IR, it ended his season. At the time, Rivera said they didn't want to rush Thomas back.

Thomas had signed a three-year extension worth up to $24.065 million in August. He caught a career-high 72 passes for 670 yards and six touchdowns in 2020 and became one of the NFL's best red zone targets at tight end. This season, Thomas was limited to six games -- he missed five games with a hamstring injury -- and caught 18 passes, three for touchdowns, and 196 yards.

Ricky Seals-Jones took over as the No. 1 tight end with Thomas out. Seals-Jones has caught 24 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games.

And finally. ... Washington added Allen, WR Cam Sims, LB Milo Eifler, S Darrick Forrest, DT Matt Ioannidis, T Cornelius Lucas and TE Sammis Reyes to the Covid list on Wednesday.

With Heinicke beat up and Allen on reserve/COVID, it's worth noting Kyle Shurmur is on the practice squad and the team signed QB Jordan Ta'amu to the practice squad.

DEPTH CHART
QBs: Taylor Heinicke, Carson Wentz, Ryan Fitzpatrick
RBs: Antonio Gibson, Jaret Patterson, J.D. McKissic
WRs: Terry McLaurin, Cam Sims, Adam Humphries, Dyami Brown, Curtis Samuel
TEs: John Bates, Sammis Reyes, Ricky Seals-Jones, Logan Thomas